ABOARD THE SOUND GUARDIAN, Puget Sound — The Sound Guardian, King County's research vessel, eased into the blue of Puget Sound for a water-quality monitoring cruise.
The crew slung equipment overboard with a splash to test the chemistry of the water, taking readings 16 times a second to measure everything from the amount of light in the water to levels of dissolved oxygen on a summer day.
While this monitoring is routine, a controversy peaking over how best to protect the health of Puget Sound is anything but.
The state's Ecology Department will decide as soon as the end of the month whether to issue a new general permit for all 58 sewage plants around the Sound.
Ecology argues that as more people live here, it's imperative they not contribute more nitrogen, which comes from their urine, and worsen low dissolved oxygen levels. These levels already occur in some parts of Puget Sound, especially in the summer.
"Puget Sound is growing pretty fast. We are confident that we are seeing a problem that needs to be addressed, and that it is going to get worse," said Vincent McGowan, head of the Water Quality division at Ecology.
The agency has been at work on the new permit requirements, and a computer model to inform required nitrogen reduction levels, for years. It's time now, McGowan said, to issue the permit and get sewer utilities engaged and planning for future nitrogen reductions.
Most sewage plants would need significant upgrades to clean nitrogen from wastewater, so billions of ratepayer dollars are potentially at stake.
There is strong pushback from sewage plant managers. They — and some scientists — argue dissolved oxygen problems in Puget Sound severe enough to harm sea life are limited in time and space, and are mostly naturally caused. So why do this? Public utility professionals say their credibility is on the line.
"What is really damaging is if we build this stuff and we don't save a fish or an orca," said Dan Thompson, division manager for wastewater operations for the city of Tacoma, which has already sued Ecology over the issue. "I could never get another dime out of ratepayers because I have lost all credibility."
McGowan and Ecology have ratcheted up the rhetoric, warning in a June 2021 agency blog post that we are on a "fast track to dead zones."
What may seem like a small difference in dissolved oxygen isn't small for the sea life affected by it, said Colleen Keltz, spokeswoman for Ecology.
"While the impaired area of Puget Sound is only a portion of all marine waters in the region, the impaired area is significantly important for the protection of healthy and robust aquatic species — and we are required to protect these species and the water they live in," Keltz said.
An inland sea
The State of the Salish Sea is a report on the health of the region's inland marine waters. Published by Western Washington University in June 2021, the authors, including scientists from all over the region, note that people readily see the complexity of landscapes, with mountains, valleys, plains, forests and rivers. But they don't as readily see the same complexity of the seascape that is Puget Sound.
Below its broad, shimmering surface are high sills that impede the circulation of water, deep canyons, reefs, shallow embayments, kelp forests, eel grass meadows, all awash in a daily in-and-out flow of salt and fresh water.
Tides, currents and circulation drive exchanges of energy, sediment and nutrients fueling the productivity of Puget Sound. This physical flushing of water in and out helps lessen human harms, from contamination to low dissolved oxygen levels, by continually moving water around the system.
This two-way, simultaneous swish of lighter surface water flowing toward the Pacific over the top of denser ocean water flowing inland results in a complete exchange of Puget Sound water every three to six months.
Nitrogen is one of the nutrients essential to productivity of Puget Sound — specifically, nitrogen from the Pacific Ocean, the single largest source in Puget Sound by far. These nutrients pour in from the sea, bringing the life-giving minerals and nutrition that feeds the Sound from the bottom of the food chain to top predators.
But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
Particularly in summer, when the freshwater inflow from rivers is greatly reduced, nitrogen in some areas of the Sound that are poorly flushed can increase. There is a delicate balance in some areas between having enough nutrients and too much. That can potentially cause algae blooms that deplete oxygen in the water as the algae dies and decays.
Sea life needs oxygen dissolved in the water as much as do terrestrial and avian beings breathing air in our atmosphere. Low oxygen levels, in addition to harming sea life, can disrupt food webs and even make marine water more acidified.
Part of the dispute over Ecology's program involves a number used in its computer model that generates predictions of impairment.
Since 1967, Washington has limited, at least on paper, how much a human-caused influence may decrease the amount of dissolved oxygen in Puget Sound. That number is 0.2 milligrams per liter of water, but it has no biological basis. It was just the smallest amount of decrease that could be measured at the time.
Using the 0.2 milligrams per liter impact, the model is predicting a difference in dissolved oxygen due to sewage plants that would be difficult to observe in the field; almost certainly can't be detected by salmon, shellfish or other marine organisms; and pales in comparison to the natural rise and fall of dissolved oxygen levels, said Joel Baker, a professor at the University of Washington and director of the Puget Sound Institute in Tacoma.
"I have worked in places with nutrient problems, the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay," Baker said. "This isn't one of them."
Parker MacCready, a professor of oceanography at the University of Washington, found in his peer review of Ecology's model that hypoxia — levels of oxygen low enough to harm sea life — is a very limited problem in Puget Sound and mostly naturally caused.
"If I were going to characterize Puget Sound water quality to a member of the public, I would say that it is generally pretty good," MacCready wrote, adding that throwing every bit of technology at sewage treatment plants wouldn't make much difference.
Gordon Holtgrieve, an ecosystem ecologist at the University of Washington, argues there is too much unresolved and significant disagreement among scientists about Ecology's approach to go forward with the general permit right now.
"There are real uncertainties and disagreement that are legitimate; this is not a bunch of academics getting into the deep, dark weeds," Holtgrieve said.
He sees better uses for ratepayers' money.
"To say fish are suffocating because of nutrients from wastewater is just not true."
The number driving the dispute has been on the books for decades, and still is — a point far from lost on Nina Bell. She is the sole employee of her nonprofit Northwest Environmental Advocates, and from her post office box in Portland, she has made regulators quiver.
Bell says she is probably the single most prolific filer of legal actions under the Clean Water Act against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Pacific Northwest region.
"I'm just trying to make the Clean Water Act work," Bell said.
With a series of actions she has filed seeking to force Ecology to enact stricter regulation of wastewater treatment plants, she has caught the attention of Gov. Jay Inslee.
He promised in a letter to Bell in March 2019 that Washington would soon be capping nutrients from treatment plants. Ecology announced its decision in January 2020 to go forward with a draft permit and launched public comment and virtual hearings.
Now the agency is poised to initiate a new era of community sewage treatment all over Puget Sound.
Hit the pause button?
King County (which treats all of Seattle's sewage, too) is asking Ecology to pause issuing the new permit. The county wants the scientific debate addressed, and meanwhile, progress made with a variety of strategies tailored to deliver measurable improvement where dissolved oxygen is known to be a problem, said Christie True, who runs the county department responsible for sewage treatment.
There is a lot at stake for ratepayers. Ecology's program would require King County to build a fourth treatment plant, and cost $9 billion to $14 billion, potentially more than doubling sewer rates for King County's customers, including in Seattle, True said.
Seattle and King County ratepayers shoulder some of the highest water and sewer rates in the country. Problems persist that are driving the county to invest hundreds of millions of dollars at its biggest sewage treatment plant, West Point in Magnolia.
Improving the plant's power supply and operational reliability is a current focus. A disastrous 2017 flood in the plant trashed expensive systems and equipment. Emergency overflows have too frequently dumped untreated sewage into Puget Sound. The Suquamish Tribe in 2020 filed a notice of intent to sue the county over untreated discharges to the Sound.
The county is committed to spending money to protect Puget Sound, True said, particularly as the climate changes and more people move here. But it's crucial to make the right investments with ratepayers' money, True said.
"The reason we think it is so essential that we pause right now is this is just a huge commitment of time and resources and money, and we really need to make sure we get it right."