Monday, February 18, 2008

Storm Water Poisoning Puget Sound?

Storm water poisoning Puget Sound

Associated Press

OLYMPIA -- Pollution pours into Puget Sound every time it rains.

There's oil and grease from parking lots, driveways and roads, fertilizers and pesticides from lawns, heavy metals from the wear and tear on brakes and tires, and animal waste.

Storm water runoff is considered the No. 1 pollution problem for the urban Puget Sound region.

"In the face of population growth and development, storm water may be the biggest challenge we face in the effort to clean up and protect Puget Sound," state Department of Ecology director Jay Manning told The Olympian newspaper.

The state Department of Ecology has estimated that storm water runoff sends more contamination into Puget Sound than any other pollution pathway. It delivers 22,580 metric tons of oil and petroleum each year, more than 20 times the volume of direct oil spills entering the sound.

Toxic storm water is a problem for about one-third of the state's water bodies that don't meet federal Clean Water Act standards. Marine sediments near storm water discharge pipes in urban bays are among the most polluted in Puget Sound.

Severe storms, like the one that walloped Western Washington in early December, create storm water runoff that overwhelms regional sewage treatment plants, sending untreated human waste into Puget Sound.

Storm water erodes stream banks, especially after heavy rains. It dumps sediment in the water and scours gravel from streams, hampering efforts to recover salmon and the 40 other imperiled species in Puget Sound.

As heavy metals and other pollutants build up in salmon, they have trouble reproducing or fending off predators. The accumulating toxins place humans at risk when they eat contaminated fish and shellfish.

"We need to address storm water pollution, if we are to have any hope of restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem," said Bruce Wishart, policy director for the conservation group People for Puget Sound.

Forested property and other undeveloped land soaks up most rainfall. Cut down trees, scrape away and pave over the vegetation, add rooftops, parking lots and driveways, and the storm water problems mount.

"Once you've cleared the site, you've lost the battle," said Tom Holz, an Olympia-area storm water engineer. "It's very unlikely we will meet Gov. Chris Gregoire's goal of a clean, healthy Puget Sound without some radical changes in land use."

Most new development in the region must capture storm water, then either treat and infiltrate it back into the ground, or release it slowly. That practice has been in vogue only since the mid-1980s.

While new storm water management techniques are debated and litigated, older developments send the storm water they generate to the nearest ditch or stream. "Older developments and neighborhoods are sitting out there like a bleeding sore," Holz said.

There's no official estimate of what it would cost to retrofit older developments to control storm water.

Simply replacing a storm water pipe serving one development, Tanglewilde near Lacey, with grass-lined ditches to soak up the water would cost an estimated $750,000.

The storm water from Tanglewilde contributes bacteria and nitrogen to lower Henderson Inlet, a public and environmental health problem that makes shellfish unfit to eat. It also contributes to oxygen-robbing algal blooms in the marine waters of South Sound.

There are hundreds of developments with similar storm water problems stretching from Olympia to Bellingham. The state highway system is another major source of storm water runoff.

The damage and economic costs of storm water runoff in the Puget Sound region will total at least $1 billion in the next decade, according to a 2006 study by the University of Washington's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Those costs include degraded water quality, landslides, flooding, shellfish harvest closures and habitat losses and repairs.

"We can't keep stripping land bare and then paving it over," Wishart said. "We need to do land-use planning in a different way that takes into account water quality."

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