Idea for Our Times: Puget Sound Repair Project

Could this address the real problem with Puget Sound?

Could this address the real problem with Puget Sound?

• Topics: Bellingham,

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?


About Tip Johnson

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms [...]

Comments by Readers

David Camp

Mar 07, 2016

Nice shot of the pipe - by the grapevine, eh?

Excellent idea, and even better if it is part of a larger project to mitigate the effects of sea level rise - dikes and dams and locks - the largest civil engineering works ever attempted by any civilization. It would be our signature effort as a civilization. Another WPA - this time the Weather Progress Agency!


Walter Haugen

Mar 07, 2016

No, no, and NO! As someone who has been studying the problem for over 45 years, let me state categorically that there are waaaayyyyy too many problems in geo-engineering. Consider the feedback loops (positive and negative), stresses on an already fragile ecosystem, the speed of new changes vs. the slow tide of species adaptation, and the virtual certainty of unscrupulous operators making a killing financially while further screwing it up. The best solution is STILL reduce inputs, reduce inputs more, and reduce inputs even further.

Never forget that the greatest decimation of the environment came with the invention of the steel axe. Seemingly harmless intervention by humans has had a gigantic impact. Geo-engineering fails at every level - paradigm, theory, and testable hypotheses.


Tip Johnson

Mar 07, 2016

But Walter, what if we could make money off it?


Tip Johnson

Mar 07, 2016

Taking some heat from my respected colleague Wendy Harris‎ in her post to Whatcom Hawk (4 hrs old when picked at 19:19:47 hours on 20160307)

This is why we can not have nice things, like functional ecosystems.

I respect this author and he is usually right about things, but this time, he could not be more off the mark. And it reflects not just an unhealthy environment, it reflects an unhealthy culture and way of viewing the biosphere. And it explains why most of our restoration efforts simply fail.

First, people do not make things better. Nature makes things better. The more I learn, the more I understant that the way to restore is to get out of the way and let nature do its job, without human interference. Rarely is the source of the problem also the source of the solution.

We MUST stop trying to solve problems through a mechanistic engineered approach. Experience shows us it does not work. Focus on restoring ecosystem functions.

We need to understand that ecosystems function first and foremost as SYSTEMS. They must be approached holistically and we must undertand that components of a system are interdependent and synergestic. If you want to improve water quality, you need to improve all the different components of that ecosystem in which that water body is located. Vegetation and biodiversity play key roles in this process. Impervious surfaces are killers, as is anything that humans built that interfere with ecosystem function.. which is generally everything.

Perhaps the most disturbing part and the part that really drew my attention was the nod of approval to outdoor recreation. This has one of the most harmful impacts on biodiversity of animals and plants and it has been proven over and over and over by studies. It is not new science. So why do we keep ignoring it?.

Of particular note, this Thursday, the Planning Commission is discussing Art.2 of the Critical Area Ordinance, which includes a provision to exempt low impact activites, such as outdoor recreation and hunting, from critical area review. This is the last thing we want to do.

But it gets even better. If an activity is exempt as low impact, and the full range of activities is not spelled out so it remains a matter of staff discretion, then you are allowed to engage in alteration of critical areas and buffers. Do you really want the Parks Department building mountain bike trails where ever it wants?

If you want to make a meaningful difference, please forget engineered solutions and ask the Planning Commission to delete the exemption for low impact activities, as well as the exemption for altering critical areas and buffers to accomodate these activities.


Marian Beddill

Mar 07, 2016

I’ll add more in a bit, but for starters, go peek at this history: ;


Marian Beddill

Mar 07, 2016

Let’s consider our similar history - of dams:  (do note that I am an engineer):-

  Engineers know how to design and build dams - then people know how to get them removed.
[build dams - then…]—-> [build syphons - then…]

  Throw “away”?  (There is no “away”! It’s right there.)

  Pollution in OUR waters?  Don’t worry - we’ll just send it to Aberdeen and Hoquiam!  (But don’t tell them, they might fuss.)

  Send our polluted water away, thru the “back-door”?  Oh, then bring in the untreated polluted water from the capitol city of BC, that’s just up the way a bit.

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