List of polluted local waters grows - 75 lakes, rivers, and creeks deemed 'impaired' by state ecology agency
Seattle, WA - Sprawling suburbs, trees lost to logging and development, and record numbers of pollution-spewing cars and trucks have combined to leave more Washington streams and lakes branded "polluted" than ever before.
More than 700 waterways are in trouble -- most often because they're too warm to keep fish healthy, but also because of pollution from toxic chemicals and bacteria, state Ecology Department officials said yesterday.
Seventy-five lakes, rivers and creeks were added to Ecology's impaired-waterways list since it was last compiled in 1998, many of them in the Puget Sound region.
But the increased number doesn't necessarily mean the problem is getting worse. Improvements in water-quality testing around the state have helped turn up more violations, and officials say some waterways have been cleaned up.
"We see ... very meaningful progress," said Dick Wallace, Ecology's water-quality program manager.
Environmentalists, pollution experts and some shoreline property owners aren't convinced.
"The state's not doing enough. We don't have cleanup plans for many of the streams and rivers in the area," said Ivy Sager-Rosenthal of the Washington Public Interest Research Group.
Increasingly, water pollution is being caused by myriad sources, making it more difficult to curb than emissions from a factory or discharges from a sewage-treatment plant. And rising water temperatures have become a serious concern in the struggle to save Northwest salmon.
"It's predictably going to get worse -- perhaps much worse, because we continue to build in a way that is going to harm fish and harm habitat," said Tom Holz of Lacey, an expert on stormwater pollution.
Holz is concerned about development that insists on wide streets with concrete gutters and a lack of vegetation essential to trapping and filtering water. Instead, rain runs off hard surfaces, carrying pollutants that harm water quality.
Polluted waters in King County include portions of Elliott Bay, Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish, the lower Duwamish River, Green Lake, Lake Union and Issaquah, Tibbetts, Longfellow and Thornton creeks. New pollution-control plans are in the works for the creeks because of water-quality violations, including low oxygen levels, high temperatures and excessive fecal coliform.
Longtime Lake Sammamish resident Frank Lill has seen the environmental damage slowly mounting because of just that kind of development.
The lake was already considered polluted by Ecology in 1998 because of high phosphorus levels, but the agency's draft 2004 list shows that it suffers from low oxygen levels, polluted sediment and too much fecal coliform and ammonia -- suggesting sewage pollution.
With all of the tree-cutting development, "you're taking away something that filters the bad stuff out of the water and replacing it with impervious surfaces so the water goes straight in," said Lill, vice president of Save Lake Sammamish, a non-profit group.
Stopping the damage "is really a moving target," he said. "We have to work harder and harder to stay even."
Once approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state's list will help Ecology identify which waterways need limits set for how much pollution can be released into them and where cleanup plans are needed. A series of public workshops are scheduled around the state next month.
Under the federal Clean Water Act, the list is supposed to be updated every two years, but a change in federal regulations compounded by a flood of data delayed the process, Ecology officials said. They anticipate staying on schedule for the next update in 2006.
Almost 300 cleanup plans have been completed statewide since 1998, and about one-fifth of the specific problems have been resolved. Officials don't know how many streams, rivers and lakes came off the previous polluted list, which also includes chunks of Puget Sound.
Water temperatures above state limits were responsible for one-third of the water-quality violations, according to the state's report. Healthy creeks generally need to have temperatures in the low 60-degree range or lower, experts say.
The release of warm water from industry and urban runoff are likely contributors to the problem, officials said. So are lower flows due to water being taken out of streams and rivers for irrigation and other uses.
That warm water is the No. 1 violation is "no surprise to me at all because we have a consistent decline in the flows of our streams," said Karen Allston, executive director of the Seattle-based Center for Environmental Law and Policy, which works on water-quantity issues.
Environmentalists and tribal representatives said the Legislature exacerbated the situation by removing Ecology's ability to curtail use of water rights when so much water is withdrawn from streams that they grow too warm. Ecology contends it never had that authority and is addressing the problem in other ways. Critics say the agency had the authority but failed to use it.
"When I talk to grade-school kids and ask them if salmon need water, they all say 'yeah,' " said Tom Geiger, outreach director for the Washington Environmental Council. "I think there may be a different answer down in Olympia."
The sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient, said Ecology was trying to use the Clean Water Act to take away water rights.
"Ecology wasn't considering the other factors, but was placing it all on the volume of water," Morton said. "Their theory is that the less water, the greater the temperature."
However, Morton said such factors as the amount of underwater plants and the color and size of rocks in and around streams and lakes can have an effect on temperature.
Records show that salmon returns are often best in low-flow drought years, when temperatures are higher, he said. "We do not give enough credit for the fish's ability of adaptation."
But Josh Baldi, the Environmental Council's policy director, found that suggestion laughable.
"It just doesn't make any sense," Baldi said. "The fish runs prior to water development in Washington and around the West were obviously ... far greater than anything we've seen in the last century."
Salmon runs are affected by a number of factors, and most fish biologists say large flows help outgoing smolts reach the ocean. Those fish return after two to five years, but a key factor in the success of runs is how much water is in streams, biologists say.
In the Columbia River Basin, salmon start to get into trouble when the water temperature rises above 68 degrees, said Bob Heinith, fish biologist with the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.
If they're in the warmer water long enough, it can kill salmon outright. But before that happens, the fish can suffer a number of other effects, including disease and young salmon ceasing to migrate, making them easy prey for predators such as birds and large fish.
Taking water out of streams "has really taken its toll on fish," Heinith said. "It's really going in the wrong direction."
The Umatilla Tribe has filed a legal challenge to Ecology's approval of a plan that it says will leave the Chelan River too warm.
But Ecology officials warn that rules and lawsuits aren't going to solve water quality problems and that recovery will take time.
"You can't regulate your way out of polluted water bodies," said Larry Altose, an Ecology spokesman. "You have to have people wanting to change behaviors in order for it to happen."
TODAY: Urban growth -- and the pollution that comes with it -- is taking a toll on Washington's streams and lakes.
TOMORROW: Some creeks look pristine, but experts say better testing could reveal problems -- and help protect fish.
More information about pollution in Washington's streams and lakes is available online. The Department of Ecology has comprehensive listings and an interactive map at: www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wq/303d/2002/2002-index.html.
Public comments on the state's draft water quality assessment will be accepted through March 15.
Workshops are scheduled for:
College, 3419 W. Fort George Wright Drive.
1226 W. Casino Drive.
300 Desmond Drive.
State seeks feedback on water pollution list
The agency surveys every stream, lake, river and creek in the state each year to identify polluted waters and set priorities for cleanup.
Now Ecology officials are asking for public comment on their survey before they submit it to the federal Environmental Protection Agency later this year. Ecology officials want people to look up the listings for waterways they're familiar with, and let the agency know if the pollution assessments seem accurate.
"This is our broadest look yet at the condition of Washington's waters," said Dick Wallace, manager of Ecology's water quality program. "It will help us figure out which waterways need the most attention as we partner with local communities to address pollution."
Ecology rates state waterways on a scale of one to five, the number increasing with the level of pollution. Two-thirds of the state's 32,165 waterways met water-quality standards and were classified as "one."
The agency will accept public comment on the list through March 15.
Details about how to comment can be found on the Internet: www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wq/303d/2002/2002_list.html.
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