Swimmable Water: What does it mean for Puget Sound? - Puget Soundkeeper Alliance

by Chris Wilke

On a sweltering summer afternoon there is nothing more refreshing than jumping in the water, especially if its a natural body of water like Puget Sound or one of our many lakes or rivers. It is exhilarating, refreshing and rejuvenating. It connects us to a primal experience and it reminds us of just how important water is to all life. Water is so powerful that we often feel good just by being next to it, and faced with the opportunity, we might even convince ourselves that we don’t really need to get in. But I recommend we do get in. Having faced this decision numerous times I don’t always get wet, but when I do, I never regret it.

Sadly, jumping in the water also carries with it a calculation – is it clean enough? There are certainly waterways around the country, and some locally, where swimming is not advised. It is however our right to expect that every one of our waterways are protected for this basic purpose. This is why we launched the Waterkeeper Swim Guide app with other Waterkeeper organizations around North America. The Swim Guide helps us check up on our local beaches and review the status. It also allows us to report pollution problems to our nearest Waterkeeper group.

When the Clean Water Act was created it had a simple goal: to maintain the integrity of the nation’s waters. The Act also established a standard that our waterways must protect “designated uses” – and that all waterways were expected to meet a “swimmable and fishable” standard. Other designated uses could be granted, such as drinking water, or for navigation. But every waterway in the country was to meet a standard where we could jump in and not get sick. Even when waste disposal is permitted, it cannot be made at the expense of the other protected uses.

This has been interpreted to be a basic right of all Americans. We all have a right to clean water, and if the swimmable, drinkable, fishable designated uses are not maintained we have a right to demand that it is cleaned up. Our waters are part of “the commons” which everyone has a right to enjoy. There is simply no designation for a permanently degraded waterway. It is either clean enough to swim or fish in, or it needs to be better cared for.

A seabird floats on calm water in Hood Canal.

Here in the Northwest we understand the value of clean water. For most of us, our drinking water comes from protected watersheds high in the mountains, so we proudly drink tap water. We understand that the cleanliness of our water affects the salmon, the oyster, the orca and the eagle. We also understand that if our water becomes polluted, wildlife is at risk and our region is impoverished.

But how often do we simply experience the joy of swimming in our local waters? Do we do it enough? Our water is pretty darn cold most of the year, so apart from an intrepid few that make a point of participating in polar bear swims, most of us have a pretty good excuse. For some, there are ways of getting in the water with the aid of extra protective gear like wetsuits or dry suits used in SCUBA diving, surfing or waterskiing. For others it can be about being precariously close, with a very real chance of falling in, as in stand-up paddle boarding. For others, particularly children, it can be about playing around the margins, on the beach or in the shallows. It all counts.

Although the hot dry summer we are having carries bad connotations for salmon survival and drought, it’s a great time to get out and swim. A refreshing dip in a lake is but a short distance away, or if you are really hot, try a jump in the Sound—I guarantee it will cool you down.

Lifeguards paddle alongside swimmers at the annual Fat Salmon Swim in Lake Washington.

When we do jump in, it’s a solid reminder of what’s at stake and what we must protect.

The swimmable standard is worth upholding, and it is the underlying reason why King County Metro made the decision 50 years ago to stop dumping raw sewage and clean up Lake Washington—a decision that predates the Clean Water Act. This success is realized daily by so many people in the area, but especially so by the 400 long distance swimmers earlier this month at the annual Fat Salmon Swim, held in a lake that was once too foul to swim in. It is why Soundkeeper was happy to support the valiant swimmers in safety boats and kayaks.

It’s the reason why Seattle, King County and other municipalities around the country are spending billions to clean up combined sewer overflows (CSOs), so that sewage is not dumped into our valued waters during rain events. We do this to protect swimmers.

And because the Clean Water Act requires it.

At the height of summer, we hope you will join us in celebrating swimmable water around Puget Sound and around the country. This weekend Waterkeeper Alliance is celebrating our right to swimmable water with a Swimmable Water Weekend (#swimmablewater for the social media savvy). There is a swimmable water photo contest and a way to share your stories. So, whether you are enjoying Seafair in Seattle, taking the kids to the beach, launching your SUP, or searching out a secluded mountain lake for a swim, let’s all take a moment to get out and enjoy what is precious.

So go ahead and jump in, the water’s fine! But check the Swim Guide first, just to be safe.