State of the Beach/State Reports/WA/Water Quality

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Washington Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access85
Water Quality85
Beach Erosion6-
Erosion Response-5
Beach Fill5-
Shoreline Structures5 2
Beach Ecology6-
Surfing Areas28
Website9-

Water Quality Monitoring Program

BEACH Act
The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) signed into law on October 10, 2000, amends the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), incorporating provisions intended to reduce the risk of illness to users of the Nation's recreational waters. The BEACH Act authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to award program development and implementation grants to eligible States, Territories, Tribes, and local governments to support microbiological testing and monitoring of coastal recreation waters, including the Great Lakes, that are adjacent to beaches or similar points of access used by the public. BEACH Act grants also provide support for development and implementation of programs to notify the public of the potential exposure to disease-causing microorganisms in coastal recreation waters. EPA encourages coastal States and Territories to apply for BEACH Act Grants for Program Implementation (referred to as Implementation Grants) to implement effective and comprehensive coastal recreation water monitoring and public notification programs. CWA section 406(i) authorizes appropriations of up to $30 million per year to develop and implement beach programs. Unfortunately, only about one-third that amount has been authorized each year since the program's inception. In recent years, the total funding available for BEACH Act grants has been about $9.5 million. Funding beyond 2012 has been in jeopardy, since EPA's budget requests for this program in FY2013 and FY2014 were ZERO (money for testing in 2013 and 2014 was ultimately allocated as part of Continuing Resolutions to resolve the Federal Budget impasse) and there was also no money for beach testing in the FY2015 budget. Again, it was restored at the last minute as part of a Continuing Resolution. It is very discouraging to have to fight for this basic funding to protect the public's health at the beach every year. Thankfully, there is a growing movement to provide stable funding. Unfortunately, in 2017 the situation is even more dire. If available, funds are allocated to the states and territories based on a formula which uses three factors that are readily available and verifiable: (1) Length of beach season, (2) miles of beach and (3) number of people that use the beaches. Washington was eligible for a $255,000 grant in fiscal year 2016. The federal grant has been the sole source of funding for Washington’s beach monitoring and notification program since the program’s inception. In 2011 the BEACH Program received a sub-award from another federal grant. Some beaches not eligible for BEACH Act grant money or not priority beaches are sponsored by local entities. This local involvement helps stretch the limited funding received by the state to cover as many beaches as possible by the monitoring and notification program.

BEACH Program Overview

The Washington State Departments of Ecology (Ecology) and Health (Health) implemented a statewide monitoring and notification program for marine recreational beaches in 2004. Each year, Washington State’s Beach Environmental, Assessment, Communication and Health (BEACH) Program evaluates and ranks approximately 170 beaches based on use, extent of water exchange, and potential risks of fecal pollution. Possible sources of fecal pollution are waste water treatment plants, septic tanks, storm water drains, freshwater discharges, marinas, pet waste, live stock, marine mammals, and shore birds. The ranked list is used in conjunction with local health jurisdiction staff knowledge of beach usage and potential pollution problems, as well as public input, to create a list of beaches to be monitored. As a result of this evaluation, approximately 70 beaches have been determined to be high-use and are considered a potential risk for fecal pollution. Of these, 35 beaches are identified as priority beaches. Each year the maximum number of beaches possible with the limited BEACH Program budget (~65) are monitored every week during the summer swimming season. In addition, the BEACH Program implemented a winter sampling schedule for the first time in 2005. Seven beaches were sampled once per week for enterococcus from November 1 to December 24. In 2011 with additional funding from EPA’s National Estuary Program Pathogens Grant the BEACH Program was able to expand monitoring to over 70 beaches. Check the BEACH Program’s website for the 2017 Beach List and current advisories and closures.

The BEACH Program ensures that marine water is safe to swim and play in and informs the public if water isn’t safe. During the 2016 beach season, 61 public beaches were sampled from Memorial Day through Labor Day. High-use beaches were sampled weekly or biweekly for enterococcus, a type of fecal bacteria. High enterococcus levels are linked to water-related illness.

Since 2004, the BEACH Program has been working with local partners (counties, tribes, and volunteer groups) to monitor marine beaches in Puget Sound and on the Washington coast. The Makah Tribe BEACH program sampled five public beaches weekly throughout the year on the Makah reservation in Clallam County.

The 2016 annual report describes beach-by-beach monitoring results and overall water quality trends.

In 2016, out of 66 beaches sampled (both Washington State and Makah BEACH Programs), 92.4% of the beaches had fewer than two swimming advisories or closures during their respective sampling seasons. The percentage of beaches passing this year was better than 2015 and also better the yearly average (2004-2016) of 84.3% passing.

Ecology and Health, as lead agencies for the BEACH Program, use an Inter-agency Advisory Committee made up of county, city, nonprofit groups, other state agencies, and local park management to develop and guide implementation of the monitoring and notification program. Surfrider Foundation has been active in the BEACH Committee from the first meeting.

Indicator Organisms: The BEACH Program tests for enterococcus for public health advisories at marine recreational beaches. Fecal coliform is also an indicator organism used for protection of surface waters of the State. (See Standards section)

Standards: Fecal coliform criteria are used in the water quality standards to protect both recreational swimming and wading as well as shellfish harvesting in Washington's marine waters. The State believes this dual purpose fecal coliform criterion is a more sensitive indicator of bacterial pollution than the EPA recommendations for enterococci indicator bacteria to maintain acceptable illness risks at marine swimming beaches. The use of a single criterion for protecting both shellfish harvesting and water contact recreation reduces unnecessary financial expenditures to both businesses and governmental agencies while fully protecting Washington's marine waters. In conformance with the federal Beaches Act, however, the BEACH Program routinely tests marine swimming beaches for enterococcus and for re-sampling events test for fecal coliform and enterococcus.

This more targeted public health advisory swimming beach assessment program uses EPA’s recommended standards for marine recreational bathing beaches of a single sample instantaneous standard of 104 enterococcus colonies/100 ml and a geometric mean of 35 enterococcus colonies/100 ml for five samples taken over a 30 day period. Results exceeding these values result in a health advisory being issued. An enterococcus value over 276 colonies per 100 ml results in the beach being closed.

Other Monitoring Programs and Information Sources

Surfrider Foundation Blue Water Task Force

Surfrider Foundation's Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) is a volunteer water quality monitoring program and is one of the only programs (along with the Washington BEACH Program) that targets coastal recreational beaches used for surfing, paddling and fishing. Surfrider's Capitol-Olympia, Northwest Straits, Olympic Peninsula, and South Sound Chapters have established BWTF programs. The BWTF fills an important link in the understanding of Washington's water quality for human health and as a critical baseline indicator of marine ecosystem health.

Heal The Bay Report Card

The environmental organization Heal the Bay, which is headquartered in the Los Angeles, California area, has expanded their Beach Report Card to cover beaches in Washington. HTB has developed an algorithm which converts numerical bacterial indicator monitoring results into a letter grade (A to F). In June 2017 Heal the Bay released their 2016-2017 Beach Report Card. Following is the text of Heal the Bay's report for Washington:

"Washington’s BEACH program is a state-administered and locally implemented program. Like Oregon, Washington monitors only Enterococcus bacteria, which differs from California’s three indicator bacteria monitoring protocol. Approximately 80% of the program has historically been funded under the federal BEACH Act, with the remaining 20% funded by the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (USEPA) National Estuary Program’s Pathogen Prevention, Reduction and Control Grant. The Makah Tribe also contributes beach monitoring to the state program through separate BEACH Program Tribal funding. Washington State has one of the most robust beach monitoring programs in the country based on the number of sample sites per mile of beach.

Summary:

  • There were 166 individual sample locations regularly monitored from Memorial Day 2016 through Labor Day 2016.
  • Water quality during summer dry weather was excellent with 94% of sites earning A grades.
  • Compared with 12 sites in 2015, only 6 sites earned C to F grades in the summer 2016 season.
  • The poor grades were comprised of three C’s and three F’s split between Clallam, Island, King and Snohomish Counties.
  • Water quality during wet weather improved in Washington last year with 93% of sites earning A or B grades.
  • This is a large improvement from last year where 71% of locations received A and B grades during summer wet weather.


Department of Ecology’s Long-Term Marine Water Monitoring

Ecology's Environmental Assessment Program (EAP) has conducted marine water quality monitoring at a number of stations in Puget Sound, Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay since 1973. The sampling stations are located mid-bay and generally are not near swimming areas. About 40 stations are monitored each year on a monthly basis. Some stations are monitored every year while some are monitored on a rotating schedule. Parameters monitored include profiles of temperature, salinity, density, dissolved oxygen, light transmission, pH, as well as discrete samples at various depths for fecal coliform bacteria, chlorophyll a, pheopigments, nitrate, nitrite, ammonium, orthophosphate, silicate, and Secchi disk depth. Ecology has posted finalized 2005 ambient marine water quality monitoring results on their Website. These data include some fecal coliform data. Provisional data are also included for 2006, 2007, and 2008.

Department of Health

Department of Health’s Office of Shellfish and Water Protection routinely monitors about 900 lineal miles of shoreline and the sampling stations are near shore. Under the state's Clean Water Act, primary recreational contact with water is afforded the same protection as shellfish harvest uses. Please read Health's website for more information about the Recreational Shellfish Program. Here are the Shellfish Growing Area Annual Reports.

Health has a useful clickable map that shows Recreational Shellfish Beach Closures Due to Biotoxins or Pollution. The Website allows you to select a county and then click on a portion of the county map to zoom in on detailed areas. You can also select a particular beach from the main menu (for those beaches that are monitored).

A new state surcharge on shellfish license sales was recently initiated to sustain collaboration between harmful algal bloom researchers and state and tribal coastal management. This surcharge will also support long-term harmful algal bloom monitoring in Washington. You can find more information about biotoxins and illness prevention in Washington.

Puget Sound Partnership

The Puget Sound Partnership (PSP) is a community effort of citizens, governments, tribes, scientists and businesses working together to restore and protect Puget Sound. Despite its size, Puget Sound is ecologically delicate; and while its symptoms of trouble are not easily visible, they are undeniable and getting worse. The charge given to the Puget Sound Partnership by Governor Gregoire and the Legislature is to create a real Action Agenda that turns things around and leads to a healthy Puget Sound.

The 2015 State of the Sound reports on the region's progress in advancing shared actions for Puget Sound recovery, as well as reports on how the ecosystem is responding through shared measures called the Puget Sound Vital Signs. The report indicates that while some habitat and water quality measures are showing improvement, the health of our salmon, orca, and other native populations will take decades of persistent effort to stabilize. The 2015 State of the Sound: Report on Puget Sound Vital Signs, released in November 2015 by the Puget Sound Partnership and Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program, provides an overview of what's getting better and what's getting worse. The report also includes snapshots of Vital Signs ecosystem indicator status. Also available on the State of the Sound website are:

Here is the current Action Agenda and the 2016 Action Agenda Update.

National Center for Coastal Ocean Science

National Ocean Service/National Center for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) has carried out many water quality research projects in Washington.

Water Quality Reports

2015 Washington State’s Water Quality Assessment

The Department of Ecology has updated both the Section 305(b) Report and Section 303(d) List of impaired waters in an “integrated” report. Following EPA’s guidance, Ecology developed Washington State's Water Quality Assessment, which satisfies Clean Water Act requirements for both Section 305(b) water quality reports and Section 303(d) list of impaired waters. Washington State's Water Quality Assessment assigns waterbody segments into one of five categories. All waters in Washington State (except on reservation lands) fall into one of the five categories which describe the status of water, from clean to polluted. The September 2015 Washington State Water Quality Assessment was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on July 22, 2016.

Washington State Marine Water Quality Report

The Washington State Marine Water Quality Report is the summary of findings from Ecology's long-term Marine Waters Monitoring Program for October 1997 through December 2000. The report summarizes marine water quality data for stations in Puget Sound, Grays Harbor, and Willapa Bay. Five indicators of marine water column environmental condition are evaluated. For the Puget Sound region in general, water quality appeared to be reasonably good; however, there are several locations where water quality was reduced, due to low dissolved oxygen concentrations, fecal coliform contamination, or an indication of sensitivity to eutrophication based on stratification or nutrient conditions. Areas of highest concern, as well as human-caused and natural factors that may be responsible, are discussed.

Puget Sound Marine Monitoring

The King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks has a long history of water quality improvements in Puget Sound through its Wastewater Treatment Division. The Marine and Sediment Assessment Group supports a comprehensive, long-term marine monitoring program that assesses water quality in the Central Puget Sound Basin on behalf of and in coordination with the Wastewater Treatment Division. Routine Monitoring includes monthly water quality sampling of both the offshore water column and beach water, high-frequency, real-time water column data collection at three locations, semiannual sampling of butter clam tissue, and biennial sampling of subtidal sediments. The County's routine monitoring program is also part of an intergovernmental monitoring effort, the Puget Sound Assessment and Monitoring Program (PSAMP). Currently you can download and graph Puget Sound CTD water column data through this Web site as well as view real time data from mooring buoys.

Water Quality Law

WAC 173-201A

In 2003 the Department of Ecology completed the first major overhaul of Washington's water quality standards in a decade. The final adoption of rule language was signed by the director on June 30, 2003. Chapter 173-201A WAC. In March 2006 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) disapproved the state standards. In August 2006 Ecology held hearings on proposed revisions to the surface water quality standards (Chapter 173-201A WAC) to meet EPA standard. Ecology developed a supplemental revision to the 2003-adopted water quality standards. This revision set colder temperature standards for specific streams, and increased the amounts of dissolved oxygen that will be required in those streams.

After carefully considering the written and oral testimony provided, Ecology's director signed the final rule on November 20, 2006. The revised rule became effective on December 21, 2006.

Chapter 173-201A WAC is Water Quality Standards for Surface Waters of The State of Washington. More information about this.

Marine Water Designated Uses and Criteria

The Marine water designated uses and criteria are included below.

"WAC 173-201A-210 Marine water designated uses and criteria. The following uses are designated for protection in marine surface waters of the state of Washington. Use designations for specific water bodies are listed in WAC 173-201A-612.

(3) Recreational uses. The recreational uses are primary contact recreation and secondary contact recreation.

a. General criteria. General criteria that apply to water contact uses for marine water are described in WAC 173-201A-260(2)(a) and (b), and are for:
(i) Toxic, radioactive, and deleterious materials; and
(ii) Aesthetic values.
b. Water contact recreation bacteria criteria. Table 210 (3)(b) lists the bacteria criteria to protect water contact recreation in marine water.


Table 210 (3)(b) - Water Contact Recreation Bacteria Criteria in Marine Water

Category Bacteria Indicator
Primary Contact Recreation Fecal coliform organism levels must not exceed a geometric mean value of 14 colonies/100 mL, with not more than 10 percent of all samples (or any single sample when less than ten sample points exist) obtained for calculating the geometric mean value exceeding 43 colonies/100 mL.
Secondary Contact Recreation Enterococci organism levels must not exceed a geometric mean value of 70 colonies/100 mL, with not more than 10 percent of all samples (or any single sample when less than ten sample points exist) obtained for calculating the geometric mean value exceeding 208 colonies/100 mL.

(i) When averaging bacteria sample data for comparison to the geometric mean criteria, it is preferable to average by season and includes five or more data collection events within each period. Averaging of data collected beyond a thirty-day period, or beyond a specific discharge event under investigation, is not permitted when such averaging would skew the data set so as to mask noncompliance periods. The period of averaging should not exceed twelve months, and should have sample collection dates well distributed throughout the reporting period.

(ii) When determining compliance with the bacteria criteria in or around small sensitive areas, such as swimming beaches, it is recommended that multiple samples are taken throughout the area during each visit. Such multiple samples should be arithmetically averaged together (to reduce concerns with low bias when the data is later used in calculating a geometric mean) to reduce sample variability and to create a single representative data point.

(iii) As determined necessary by the department, more stringent bacteria criteria may be established for waters that cause, or significantly contribute to, the decertification or conditional certification of commercial or recreational shellfish harvest areas, even when the preassigned bacteria criteria for the water is being met.

(iv) Where information suggests that sample results are due primarily to sources other than warm-blooded animals (e.g., wood waste), alternative indicator criteria may be established on a site-specific basis by the department."

Water Quality Contacts

Julie Lowe
BEACH Program Manager
Washington State Departments of Ecology & Health
julie.lowe@ecy.wa.gov
Desk: (360) 407-6543
Fax: (360) 407-6884

Christopher Clinton
BEACH Program Specialist/Data Manager
Washington State Departments of Ecology & Health
christopher.clinton@ecy.wa.gov
Desk: (360) 407-6154
Fax: (360) 407-6884

Mailing Address
BEACH Program
Environmental Assessment Program
PO Box 47710
Olympia, WA 98504-47710

Physical Address
Department of Ecology Headquarters
300 Desmond Dr.
Lacey, WA 98503

BEACH Cell Phone: 360-480-4868 (In case of emergency)

Carol Maloy
Marine Monitoring Unit Supervisor
Environmental Assessment Program
Washington State Department of Ecology
(360) 407-6742

Bob Woolrich
Growing Area Section Manager
Office of Shellfish & Water Protection
Washington State Dept. of Health
(360) 236-3329

Beach Closures

Samples are taken from three locations at each beach in knee depth water. The bacterial count for the simultaneous samples is averaged and compared to the standard. Advisories are not generally issued until re-sampling confirms. However, if average enterococcus concentrations are more than 276 cfu/100 ml, the state usually recommends posting an advisory immediately. You can view the State’s recommended decision process. The local health jurisdictions notify the public within 24 hours after an advisory is issued. They use news releases, signs on the beach and the state administered Website to notify the public of beach advisories. The BEACH Program maintains an online map that shows beach status, now part of the Washington Coastal Atlas. If a beach is closed or placed under advisory, the monitoring frequency is increased until the beach is reopened.

Beach Closure Data

Here's access to information on current and past beach advisories/closures.

National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) formerly published an annual Testing the Waters report. In 2014 they reported the following for beach monitoring that occurred during 2013:

In 2013, Washington reported 1,534 coastal beaches, 60 of which were monitored. Of all reported beach monitoring samples, 12% exceeded the Beach Action Value (BAV) of 60 enterococcus bacteria colony forming units (cfu) per 100 ml marine or estuarine water in a single sample. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and reported samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.

The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the BAV in Washington in 2013 were Little Squalicum Park Beach in Whatcom County (47%), Bayview State Park in Skagit County (41%), Allyn Waterfront Park in Mason County (41%), Waterfront Dock/Ruston Way in Pierce County (35%), and Larrabee State Park, Wildcat Cove in Whatcom County (25%).


Special Topics

Bacteria Source Investigations

The Department of Ecology is partnering with the Quinault Indian Nation, the state Department of Health, and Grays Harbor County to try to determine the source of bacteria showing up at the beach north of Ocean Shores. This matters because parts of this beach are now (2014) closed to razor clam digging during the summer months. The bacteria study covers approximately 22 miles of continuous ocean beaches from Ocean Shores north to Moclips, also called North Beach. The study will continue for a year to figure out when and where human-caused bacteria sources are creating water quality impairments, razor clam harvest downgrades and closures, and to help prioritize areas for cleanup. Investigators will be looking for high bacteria concentrations coming from the major streams entering the Pacific Ocean, storm water ditches, and in the marine water near razor clam harvest areas. More information.

Surfrider Foundation's Northwest Straits Chapter has been working with county and state officials for several years to identify and address sources of bacteria at Larrabee State Park in Whatcomb County. A likely source seems to be.......raccoons. Read more.

Impact of Dogs

The Marina Beach Dog Park in Edmonds is a contained park for dogs to run off-leash. It is adjacent to Marina Beach North, a playground and popular beach for small children. The volunteer organization “Off Leash Area Edmonds” along with the City of Edmonds works hard to keep this area free of pet waste. The beach is plastered with signs to educate dog owners of the importance of picking up waste and potential ill health effects of leaving it on the beach. Pet waste stations and trash cans are available. Some volunteers come frequently to pick up waste. Local Boy Scout Troop 312 installed a double gated entry system to the beach.

Since 2004, bacteria have been consistently elevated above background levels with the bacteria exceeding EPA’s criteria 4 times in 2007, but only once in 2008. In spite of the efforts noted above, large amounts of pet waste can often still be found lying on the beach. In 2007, Snohomish County posted a permanent Advisory sign at this beach. Considering the impact to the beach in the face of significant efforts to prevent fecal pollution, the BEACH Program highly recommends not placing off leash dog parks at waterfront locations. Snohomish County has put together a great pet waste prevention program.

Impact of Creosote-Treated Wood

Decades-old wood debris permeated with creosote is a problem in natural estuaries in Nick's Lagoon in Seabeck, on Hood Canal. The presence of this material can be an ecological and a human health threat. Over time, the creosote can leach into the substrate of the beach and make it impossible for fish to spawn in that area. Fortunately, the wood debris was being cleaned up late 2013 by Washington Conservation Corp and Puget Soundcorps, as part of a broader restoration effort across Puget Sound.

Storm Drains and Sewage Outfalls

Ecology's Facility/Site Database allows for an on-line GIS-based search to locate and retrieve information about facilities with NPDES permits to discharge to surface water.

The Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) is responsible for issuing wastewater discharge permits under the State Water Pollution Control Act (Chapter 90.48). Under the act, Ecology operates a state waste discharge permit program for discharges to surface and ground water, sewerage systems, and storm drains. Ecology also has authority to carry out provisions of the federal Clean Water Act. Ecology issues both State Water Pollution Control Act and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits. The program also focuses on non-point sources of pollution. Ecology non-point water pollution prevention work is largely voluntary focusing on agriculture, urban runoff, and general water quality complaints.

Information on King County's wastewater treatment systems is available online. King County's wastewater system includes:

  • two large regional wastewater treatment plants (the West Point Plant in the City of Seattle and the South Plant in the City of Renton),
  • two small wastewater treatment plants (one on Vashon Island and one in the City of Carnation),
  • one community septic system (Beulah Park and Cove on Vashon Island),
  • four combined sewer overflow (CSO) treatment facilities (Alki, Carkeek, Mercer/Elliott West, and Henderson/Norfolk--all in the City of Seattle),
  • over 350 miles of pipes,
  • 19 regulator stations,
  • 42 pump stations, and
  • 38 CSO outfalls


More facts about King County's system.

The West Point Treatment Plant in Seattle treats about 112 million gallons per day (mgd) of sewage and stormwater and discharges treated wastewater through an outfall pipe that is 3,600 ft. long and 240 ft. deep at the discharge point. The South Treatment Plant in Renton treats about 94 mgd of sewage and stormwater and discharges through an outfall pipe that is 10,000 ft. long and 625 ft. deep at the discharge point.

In October 2005, King County announced that they had completed a $77 million Henderson/Martin Luther King Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Project, which features a 15-foot-diameter, two-thirds-mile-long pipe that can hold four million gallons of combined storm drain and sewer overflow water until it can be treated. Here is a brochure on their CSO program (2004).

In June 2014 Ecology announced that 126 wastewater (sewer) treatment plants in the state had perfect track records in 2013, a jump from 107 from the year before. The award-winning plants passed all environmental tests, analyzed all samples, turned in all state-required reports and avoided permit violations during 2013. Before Ecology's recognition program began in 1995, it found just 14 treatment plants in perfect compliance. Here is a complete list by county of the state's outstanding wastewater treatment plant award winners for 2014 (and prior years). News release.

A table (Table 5.1) summarizing Ecology's plans to manage non-point source pollution in Washington state can be found in Washington’s Water Quality Management Plan to Control Nonpoint Sources of Pollution (2005). The BEACH Program is referenced in this document.

In May 2013 it was announced that Ecology was offering $2 million in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants to eight Puget Sound communities to help curb the adverse effects stormwater can pose to the region’s critical watersheds. The grants will help the cities of Edmonds, Kirkland, Mukilteo and Redmond as well as King, Kitsap, Thurston and Whatcom counties plan for stormwater retrofit projects to correct deficiencies in older, existing infrastructure in nine targeted creek systems.

Combined Sewer Systems

As discussed above, Seattle and King County have combined sewer systems, which carry wastewater and stormwater to a sewage treatment plant before being discharged into a nearby water body. During heavy rainstorms, these systems can exceed their capacity and overflow. The extra water gets piped or pumped, with little or no treatment, directly into Puget Sound or its tributaries. The City of Seattle currently manages 92 combined sewer overflow locations and King County manages 38, and neither government has been able to stop the routine discharge of untreated water during heavy rain into Lake Union, Lake Washington, the Duwamish River and Puget Sound. In 2007, Seattle's system overflowed 249 times and King County's system overflowed 87 times. Each year, an estimated 1.94 billion gallons of untreated sewage and polluted runoff are discharged from Seattle and King County combined sewer overflow outfalls into Puget Sound and its tributary waters. This overflow can carry high levels untreated sewage as well as grease, petroleum and other chemicals from roadways and parking lots. Both the city and county have already added some water storage capacity to their systems, which has reduced the volume of overflows.

The City of Seattle and King County were issued compliance orders in August 2009 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The City's compliance order addresses wastewater discharge permit violations found during a March 2008 EPA investigation. The order requires the City of Seattle to prepare an overflow emergency response plan, a plan to ensure the collection system is cleaned in a more systematic way, and a plan to create more collection system storage to prevent some CSO overflows from discharging. The order requires the City of Seattle to prepare a plan to reduce the number of basement backups and a plan to reduce the number of dry weather overflows. EPA expects the City of Seattle to be in compliance with the conditions of the compliance order by March 2012.

The King County compliance order requires the county to submit a plan to observe and document some of King County's combined sewer overflow outfalls after a rainfall event to ensure there is no debris being discharged. The order also requires King County to upgrade its Elliot West Treatment Plant to ensure proper treatment of overflows that may occur there during wet weather vents. EPA expects King County to comply with the order by March 2010.

The Mercer/Elliott West tunnel storage and treatment system (formerly called the Denny Way/Lake Union CSO Project) was brought online in May 2005 as a joint project with Seattle's East Lake Union CSO control projects. In 2008, the third full year of operation, there were four discharge events that released 53.1 million gallons. King County provides wastewater treatment to 17 cities and 17 local sewer utilities, serving about 1.5 million people, including most urban areas of King County and parts of south Snohomish County and northeast Pierce County.

King County has developed proposals to control combined sewer overflows (CSOs) at two locations in West Seattle—the Barton and Murray CSO basins. One project is the construction of a new 1.0-million-gallon storage tank on the east side of Beach Drive SW near Lowman Beach Park to control CSOs in the Murray CSO basin. The other is the installation of rain gardens in the right-of-way along 32 to 64 half-blocks in the Sunrise Heights and Westwood neighborhoods east of 35th Avenue SW to control overflows in the Barton CSO basin.

King County and the City of Seattle are stepping up their efforts to control combined sewer overflows even further as a result of separate consent decrees entered into with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Washington State Department of Ecology in April 2013. Seattle and King County will make improvements to their sewer systems totaling nearly $1.5 billion. CSOs discharged from outfalls managed by the city or the county totaled 30 billion gallons in 1970. By 2012, such overflows had been reduced to approximately 1 billion gallons—a significant achievement—but further improvements are still required. Serving an 88 square mile area, the conveyance system overseen by Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) includes 968 miles of combined sewers, accounting for roughly a third of the city’s overall collection system. Rather than treat the wastewater itself, SPU conveys its sewage to King County’s collection system. However, SPU manages 87 CSO outfalls, 35 of which are uncontrolled, meaning that overflows from them occur on average more than once a year. From 2007 through 2010, the city discharged approximately 200 million gallons of CSOs each year, according to the EPA. Upon completing the projects stipulated in the consent decrees, Seattle and King County will have reduced the remaining CSO volumes by 99 percent. More info on completed and planned CSO projects.

King County's website has a map which shows the current status of combined sewer overflows - discharging, discharged in the last 48 hours, or not discharging.

The City of Port Angeles is another area that has had significant problems with CSOs. Since adopting its CSO Reduction Plan, the city has constructed several projects to attempt to bring CSOs under control. Six of the original ten CSO discharge points have been eliminated. Despite these efforts, in 2009 there were 106 combined sewage overflow events from the four remaining CSO discharge points, totaling approximately 31 million gallons. The city maintains a Combined Sewer Overflow Information website with annual reports, maps and additional program information.

About 10 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into Elliott Bay in December 2009 because of an equipment failure and human error at the West Point treatment plant in Magnolia. It was determined that the spill could have been prevented, according to findings from the Department of Ecology (Ecology), which fined the county $24,000 over the incident. The release of untreated sewage began about 10 p.m. Dec. 14, 2009, and lasted almost 3 hours. An electrical short circuit in a no-longer-used system, coupled with operator error, caused an emergency bypass gate to open, diverting a portion of the incoming wastewater around the treatment system and into Puget Sound. Ecology investigators determined that after the electrical malfunction occurred, operators failed to implement the facility's standard operating procedures, and did not use a backup system that can override the controls and close the gate within minutes.

This major spill of untreated wastewater pales when compared with the toxic insults funneled into the Sound legally every day. Every 24 hours, poisonous heavy metals such as copper splash into bays by the ton in stormwater runoff. In a given year, 123,000 metric tons of toxic oil-based chemicals may wash in off streets and parking lots. During 2008, King County's overflow system pumped out 105 million gallons of raw sewage and rainwater during storms. This 4-minute video illustrates the impacts of storm drain discharges into Puget Sound and is a preview of a longer video Sound and Vision from People for Puget Sound.

A sewage spill occurred at Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island May 30, 2009. A 30 year-old pipe that spanned from a pump station to the city’s treatment plant corroded. It carried 60 percent of the city’s waste, resulting in the release of 1,400 gallons of sewage per hour into Eagle Harbor, part of the Puget Sound. The city’s Public Utility Works crew installed a temporary band on the pipe on May 31, cutting the volume of waste released in a 24-hour period from 70,000 to 35,000 gallons per day. Total waste released into the bay was initially estimated at 140,000 gallons. This estimate was later revised to between 287,000 and 493,000 gallons of untreated sewage.

Septic Systems

An on-site septic (sewage) system is the most common method of sewage treatment and disposal for homes that are not on a public sewer line. A septic system consists of a tank and a drainfield where the wastewater slowly seeps into the soil. Proper septic systems treat the sewage before it reaches ground and surface waters. Poorly designed or malfunctioning systems cause odor and water pollution. Thurston County is an area where problems have been experienced with septic systems and efforts are being made to connect properties to a sewer system. An estimated 16,744 properties in the Olympia-Lacey-Tumwater area rely on septic systems, according to the LOTT Clean Water Alliance, which handles wastewater in the region. Of these septic systems, about 5,530 are considered “high risk.” Olympia is the only Thurston County city with a septic conversion program that has dedicated staffing. The program, called Septic to Sewer, provides support and financial incentives for residents and neighborhoods interested in converting to Olympia’s sewer system. However, only five residences have chosen to connect to the sewer in 2014, according to the city.

Washington's Department of Ecology has information on the design and maintenance of septic systems.

Washington's Department of Health also has information on On-site Sewage Systems (those that treat less than 3,500 gallons per day) and Large On-site Sewage Systems (those that are designed to treat between 3,500 and 100,000 gallons per day).

Most county health departments also have information on the design, operation, maintenance and permitting of septic systems. Some of the health departments have done work on identifying and tracking sources of pollution from faulty septic systems. One such health department is Kitsap Public Health District. Officials there have experimented with trying to track evidence of human pollution by analyzing water in polluted streams or storm drains for caffeine, nicotine, and various pharmaceutical products. The researchers discarded caffeine as an indicator of human waste, because someone could dump a cup of coffee on the ground, where it could get into stormwater. In that case, a positive test for caffeine would not point to a source of pollution. They settled instead on paraxanthine, which is a breakdown product of caffeine excreted in urine. That one turns out to be a good indicator of waste from coffee drinkers. Likewise, the researchers discarded nicotine as an indicator of a human source, because the chemical can show up when cigarettes are tossed on the ground. It turns out that cotinine, a metabolite of nicotine, provides a good test for human waste. Two pain killers — ibuprofen and acetaminophen — turn out to be good indicators, along with sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic. Investigators are also considering other chemical tests, such as looking for the artificial sweetener sucralose, the mood-stabilizing drug carbamazepine or the common herbicide mecaprop. While these chemicals are widespread in low concentrations, finding them at higher levels could be an indicator of pollution from people.

Cruise Ships

A water quality concern in many coastal states is discharges from Cruise Ships. The State of Washington is working with the Northwest Cruise Ship Association to allow "blackwater" discharges from cruise ships to be discharged continuously in Puget Sound, including while at dock. Washington State is proposing a new law that would allow "blackwater" discharge for ships equipped with advanced wastewater treatment systems (AWTS).

Ecology staff has expressed concerns with the ability of AWTS systems to handle disinfection when ships are experiencing an outbreak. There were several reported outbreaks in 2005 on cruise ships. Staff are also concerned that blackwater discharges from cruise ships could impact nutrient loading problems.

An article written by Kristen Millares Bolt regarding issues associated with treatment of sewage from Cruise Ships and offshore disposal of sewage sludge appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on February 9, 2007. The article states that "...officials at the Department of Ecology would like the Port of Seattle to consider taking environmental protection one step further as they prepare to spend $60 million on a new facility for the ships near Magnolia. They'd like the cruise ships to look at pumping waste ashore, where it would be treated and used for fertilizer on farms and forest lands." The article has several links to additional information regarding Cruise Ship discharges, including a link to the cruise ship dumping agreement between the Port of Seattle, the North West Cruise Ship Association and the Department of Ecology.

EPA published a Cruise Ship Discharge Assessment Report in December 2008. Quoted from the report:

“Pathogen Indicators: Based on data collected by ACSI in 2000, the average fecal coliform concentration in traditional Type II MSD effluent was 2,040,000 MPN/100 ml (total of 92 samples, calculation used detection limits for nondetected results). The range was from nondetect (detection limit of 2) to 24,000,000 MPN/100 ml. Of the 92 samples, 51 were greater than 200 MPN/100 ml, 35 were greater than 100,000, and 22 were greater than 1,000,000. This compares to typical fecal coliform concentrations in untreated domestic wastewater of 10,000 to 100,000 MPN/100 ml (Metcalf & Eddy, 1991). Fecal coliform is the only pathogen indicator analyzed by ACSI. As mentioned above, these data are primarily for traditional Type II MSDs, but two of the 21 vessels sampled were using prototype reverse osmosis treatment systems.”


In a legal settlement reached in January 2010, the state Department of Transportation agreed that whenever it builds new highways in western Washington, it will also spend a little bit of money to retrofit old ones - thousands of miles of which were constructed without sediment ponds or other pollution controls. The state promised that whenever it builds new highway lanes in the Puget Sound basin, it will spend up to 20 percent of the project's stormwater control costs to upgrade existing roads. The Transportation Department will determine which roadways are top priorities, either because of the amount of runoff they generate or because they are near waters already impaired by pollution, and fix those first.

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)

Washington is requiring dairies with 200 or more cows to apply for updated water quality permits. The new regulations are meant to curb water pollution from livestock manure. This type of runoff can cause excessive nitrates in drinking water, which is harmful to infants, adults with compromised immune systems, and women who are trying to become pregnant. Pollution from manure can also contaminate shellfish beds and beaches.

The updated rules could increase the number of dairies that need water quality permits. Previously only a handful of dairies were required to follow stricter standards to manage runoff pollution. Now, about 200 farms will have to meet new water quality guidelines. One of the bigger changes will be when dairies are allowed to spread manure on crops — dairies often use manure as fertilizer, but too much can cause nitrates to seep into groundwater. With the new rules operators can’t spread an excessive amount of fertilizer on the land, and it can’t be applied on saturated or snow-covered soil. If soils test high for nitrate pollution, farmers will have to limit the amount of fertilizer they’re spreading on crops or monitor the groundwater.

Dairies will also have to assess the pollution risk caused by their lagoons, which are pools that are part of how dairies manage waste.

“Most lagoons have clay liners that seep into the earth and the ground water,” said Sandy Howard, a Department of Ecology spokeswoman. “We’re not requiring all of the facilities to dig out the clay liners and put in synthetic liners [right now]. But we’re requiring dairies to assess their lagoons and provide information about when they were built, their capacity, and to determine what pollution risk they pose.”

Once the assessment is done, the department may make operators line their lagoons, if the pollution risk is too high. More.

Washington Department of Ecology CAFO General Permit.

Vessel Deconstruction Over Water

The Department of Ecology has finalized a new Vessel Deconstruction General Permit. Businesses and boat owners who plan to dismantle older vessels while they are still in the water will need the permit prior to starting work. Ecology developed the permit in response to the growing problem of deteriorating and sometimes abandoned vessels that pose risks to Washington waters and to public health and safety. Vessels can be at risk of sinking and releasing oil, fuel and hazardous or toxic materials. The permit is expected to give vessel owners options when deconstruction at a shipyard is not feasible. Final deconstruction would need to be done at facilities permitted to perform this work.

No Discharge Zones

Federal regulations now allow dumping partly treated sewage within three miles of shore, and vessels can dump untreated sewage in water beyond that. The DOE, the state Department of Health and the Puget Sound Partnership have drafted a petition, asking the EPA to ban dumping sewage in those waterways (Puget Sound, Lake Washington, Lake Union and the Lake Washington Ship Canal). The agencies are seeking public comment on the proposal. Comments can be made on the DOE website where you can also learn more about this issue.

In November 2016 an article in the Seattle Times reported that the state Department of Ecology had proposed a No Discharge Zone in Puget Sound. The new rule would require any vessel with a permanent toilet aboard to store waste until it could be pumped out ashore, instead of dumping it overboard. In addition to the San Juan Islands, and portions of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the no-discharge zone would include all marine waters in and around Seattle, as well as the fresh waters of Lake Washington, Union Bay, Montlake Cut, Portage Bay, Lake Union, Fremont Cut and the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

In 2016, the Washington Clean Vessel Act, a joint project of Washington State Parks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Washington Sea Grant, helped divert a record 10 million gallons of raw sewage from Puget Sound, Lake Washington and other state waterways that previously would have been dumped into vulnerable waters. Instead it was collected for safe onshore treatment. This diversion is largely a result of training, outreach and federal funds provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife for the Pumpout Washington program, a branch of the Clean Vessel Act that provides outreach and education to boaters and boater organizations. More.

The Growth Management Act and Critical Areas Ordinance

The Growth Management Act was adopted because the Washington State Legislature found that uncoordinated and unplanned growth posed a threat to the environment, sustainable economic development, and the quality of life in Washington. Known as the GMA, the Act (Chapter 36.70A RCW) was adopted by the Legislature in 1990. The GMA has been amended several times since, including 1996, when the boards’ jurisdiction was expanded to include allegations of non-compliance with certain provisions of the Shoreline Management Act (SMA, Chapter 90.58 RCW).

The GMA requires state and local governments to manage Washington’s growth by identifying and protecting critical areas and natural resource lands, designating urban growth areas, preparing comprehensive plans and implementing them through capital investments and development regulations. This approach to growth management is unique among states.

Critical areas include wetlands, fish and wildlife conservation areas, flood zones and high erosion areas. These are areas that, if developed, the impact will jeopardize private property, the health of endangered species and critical natural functions, such as flood control and aquifer recharge. To protect critical areas, the GMA requires that all counties and cities adopt a Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) with regulations for all new development on or adjacent to “critical areas.” In order to determine these regulations, the jurisdiction must consider the “best available science” in order to protect critical areas from harmful or irresponsible development.

For example, the CAO should prohibit new development so close to a steep bluff that erosion could cause it to fall. Such law should also mandate that new development adjacent to flowing water, leave enough vegetation between the structure and the shoreline to support the entire food chain necessary for healthy salmon. Developing CAO policies is an enormous opportunity to better manage growth in order to support a sustainable future, protect water quality and maintain a healthy coastal ecosystem.

Water Quality Contact (Runoff and Outfalls)

Lynn Schneider
On-Site Septic Program
Office of Shellfish & Water Protection
Washington State Department of Health
360-236-3379

Perception of Causes

The state's 2008 Water Quality Assessment contained both good news and bad news. On the good news side, the assessment notes that innovative strategies such as fixing failing septic systems, keeping livestock out of streams, creating healthy vegetation for stream sides and keeping polluted runoff from entering storm drains are working in Adams, Asotin, Garfield and Kitsap counties. The assessment counts 84 waters across the state that local jurisdictions have cleaned up using these methods. The 2004 list counted 23 such waters. There are approximately 800 waters where cleanup planning is under way. On the bad news side, the 2008 assessment added about 900 new water listings to the state's list of polluted waters, also known as the 303(d) list.

Puget Sound Partnership's 2015 State of the Sound report, the Report to the Community, and the Vital Signs report are intended to help partners and decisionmakers better understand the state of the Puget Sound ecosystem, where progress is being made, where challenges remain, and where focused investment is needed.

Public Education

The Washington Waters — Ours to Protect campaign provides a framework to help people change some of their behaviors that pollute Washington's lakes, rivers, wetlands and marine waters. The core of the campaign is this website-based "tool kit" for local governments, organizations and citizens working on water quality projects.

The WA BEACH Program has information on tips for staying healthy at the beach and how to be a good beach steward. Also check out the BEACH Program's Blog.

Puget Sound Partnership’s ECO Net (Education, Communication & Outreach Network) is a Puget Sound-wide network that builds and strengthens relationships among organizations working in the Puget Sound. The network draws on the combined experience and community level knowledge of existing networks and efforts to increase public awareness, public involvement, and individual stewardship.

In 2012 PSP released Low Impact Development - Technical Guidance Manual for Puget Sound.

Ecology's website has an education page that provides links to a wide variety of educational materials regarding non-point source pollution and related topics. A variety of education materials and programs, including Project WET (Water Education for Teachers) is also described here.

STORM (Stormwater Outreach to Regional Municipalities) has embarked on a public education drive called Puget Sound Starts Here, designed to show people across the Sound region relatively simple pollution-prevention measures, such as:

  • Take cars to a commercial car wash, where wash water is properly handled. Car wash water can be as potentially toxic to marine life as some industrial wastewater discharges.
  • Fix car leaks, or place cardboard under the car in the short term to catch leaking oil and other fluids.
  • Use compost -- instead of fertilizers or pesticides -- to grow a healthy lawn and garden.
  • Pick up pet waste with a bag -- both in the yard and in public places -- and place it in the trash.


If your school, club or nonprofit group holds charity car washes as fund-raisers, King County has car-wash kits available for use at no cost to help you protect the region's water quality. The kits help keep soapy water, car fluids and other pollutants which are toxic to fish and plant life out of storm drains that empty into Puget Sound or local streams, lakes and rivers by diverting the dirty water into sewer lines connected to water-treatment plants. Some effort is involved in using the kits. To redirect dirty water, the car-wash kit includes a plastic insert that must be stuck down a storm drain to capture dirty water. Also in the kit is a submersible electric sump pump for emptying the plastic insert, and a long garden hose for diverting old water from the insert into a nearby toilet, sink or drain connected to a treatment plant. Schools, utility districts and other special districts, tribal groups, local governments, private nonprofit groups and individuals are eligible to apply for a free car-wash kit. Or, the county has compiled a list of places that can lease the kits. For more information about eligibility, car wash kits or the application process contact Ken Pritchard at ken.pritchard@kingcounty.gov or 206-296-8265.

The United States Geological Survey maintains a website, USGS Washington Water Science Center. This site is a valuable source of information including current projects, online reports, publications, maps, real-time water conditions, and educational outreach material for teachers and students.

Washington Sea Grant also provides some information on water quality and reducing nonpoint source pollution.

WSU's Jefferson County Extension has two water-related education programs. The Shore Stewards program is open to shoreline and streamside residents of Jefferson, Kitsap and Mason Counties. Shoreline landowners can have the most direct impact on the marine and nearshore environments. This program will help landowners learn about how to minimize these impacts. The Beach Naturalists program gives participants comprehensive, science-based training to become better stewards, citizen scientists, and educators in the local community.. Following a training by local and regional experts, WSU links you to stewardship, research projects and education in the watersheds of Jefferson County.

Washington State University Pierce County Extension has published Rain Garden Handbook for Western Washington Homeowners (June 2013). Rain gardens are one of the most versatile and effective tools in a new approach to managing stormwater called low impact development (LID). An LID project may incorporate several tools to soak up rain water, reduce stormwater runoff, and filter pollutants. Some examples of these tools include permeable paving, compost-amended soils, vegetated roofs, rainwater collection systems, and rain gardens. Here's a newspaper article on the use of rain gardens in Seattle. Surfrider Foundation's version of this is Ocean Friendly Gardens.

General Reference Documents and Websites

EPA has compiled several NPS (Nonpoint Source) Outreach Products that are a selection of television, radio, and print products on nonpoint source pollution that have been developed by various agencies and organizations around the country. They are good examples of outreach in the mass media. Also see What You Can Do.

NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, International City/County Management Association and Rhode Island Sea Grant, has released an interagency guide that adapts smart growth principles to the unique needs of coastal and waterfront communities. Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities builds on existing smart growth principles to offer 10 coastal and waterfront-specific guidelines that help manage development while balancing environmental, economic, and quality of life issues.




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