Imagine a toilet that can’t flush but still gets used. OK, sorry about that, but it’s exactly the problem with Puget Sound. Like any water body lacking an outlet, it is doomed to collect and concentrate anything sent its way. And we are sending way too much.
Once upon a time, working on a project for the paper mill in Port Townsend, we realized that when the tide comes in, all the mill’s pollution goes into the sound. When the tide goes out, the pollution goes out, but when the tide changes, the pollution goes in again and brings in some of what previously was headed out. The upshot is that it just keeps building up. Farther south in the sound, the situation intensifies. Everything flowing into the sound is destined to stay and accumulate.
Recently, salmon have been found showing traces of 81 drugs and personal-care products. Other observers note that clean water remains an elusive goal even 44 years after the nation enacted the Clean Water Act.
The South Puget Sound Core Group’s Action Agenda points out that “All waters that drain from the nine inlets must pass through the Tacoma Narrows, which, together with the numerous inlets and islands, impedes circulation and restricts flow within and out of South Puget Sound.” The agenda identifies a number of threats and causes most of which, they note, derive from the area being “one of the fastest growing areas in the state.” Storm water from urban development and agriculture, effluent from septic tanks and even municipal wastewater discharges are accepted as major impacts. We are literally loving Puget Sound to death.
Even the state government admits “Puget Sound is in trouble”, that the waters “contain a soup of noxious and poisonous chemicals” and that “Every time it rains, thousands of pounds of toxic pollutants flow overland, eventually winding up in the Sound.” The Department of Ecology says they are “committed to do all (they) can” and will be “bringing to bear (the) best science and research resources to understand the challenges.”
But it’s already been 44 years since the Clean Water Act and things are still getting worse. The farther south you go, the worse it gets. Commitment, science, research and understanding may help, but what might really help is a good flush.
Recently I compared tide elevations between Olympia and Aberdeen. It turns out the tides are on different schedules and there is often a significant difference in elevation. Perhaps this difference could be exploited to create an outlet from south Puget Sound to the coast. Obviously, the terrain is not perfect for drainage out of the Sound. The pollution accumulation is caused because everything flows in, not out. However, the terrain is moderate and the distance is not far before natural grades that lead to the ocean can be obtained.
What if the southern lobes of the Sound were connected by a manifold, and a large siphon built to pull water from the most stagnant areas, down to the ocean when the tide is high in Puget Sound and low at the ocean’s shore? This would draw ocean water in through the Straits of Juan de Fuca, through Admiralty Inlet, gradually through the Tacoma Narrows and eventually down to the far end of the Sound’s southern lobes. Would it be an exorbitant capital project? Could power be generated on a long-haul, low-head, high-volume pipeline to offset costs of construction and operations?
It’s not rocket science. Egyptian reliefs dating back to 1,500 BC show siphons being used to transfer liquids. The Los Angeles Aqueduct contains over nine miles of siphons, some eleven feet in diameter, surmounting far more extreme grades than required in this location. If such a project can be rationalized to provide billable water quantity supplies, could it be similarly figured to provide environmental quality? The best intentioned efforts of the DOE do not come without cost. This is just a matter of cost and benefit. Obviously, we must not relent in our efforts to reduce the toxins entering the Sound, but could a little flushing give us a better chance to really make a difference?
We will all benefit from cleaner water in Puget Sound. A once thriving shellfish industry, now increasingly interrupted by closures, could be prioritized as a food security asset. Our orca populations are a regional asset - if we can keep them alive. Keeping salmon healthy will help keep the orca happy and us fed. The Clean Water Act’s goals of fishable and swimmable waters translate directly into localized economies. A recent study found that outdoor recreation is an economic engine that should be encouraged. Already almost 450 million participant days generate around $20 billion annually in activities that support almost 200,000 jobs.
On final benefit: The siphon doesn’t need to be buried. It could be built above ground, offering the longest continuous graffiti platform in the state. Environment and the arts! What’s not to like?