As a Waterkeeper organization, Puget Soundkeeper patrols local waterways to look for pollution, pick up debris, and track changes over time that give us an understanding of the health of the Puget Sound watershed. We are your eyes on the water, and we take the responsibility seriously. Often, these patrols are by boat or kayak, but we also go on foot and by car, depending on the destination.

Soundkeeper staff look out at Elliott Bay from the patrol boat on a routine boat patrol.

The Puget Sound watershed is massive. It covers the drainage from the Olympic mountains to the Cascades, and over 10,000 tributary rivers and streams. Sometimes, the best way to see what we need to see is from the air. That’s where LightHawk comes in.

An aerial view of the Port of Tacoma, looking North over Puget Sound.

LightHawk is a nonpartisan organization that pairs volunteer pilots with nonprofits working to accelerate conservation success and protect lands, waters and wildlife. Since 2017, Soundkeeper has been lucky enough to work with LightHawk to coordinate aerial pollution patrols above Puget Sound. These patrols give us important perspective on how the watershed is doing, and they allow us to share a birds-eye view with everyone who cares about the Sound and the surrounding waters.

LightHawk pilots have partnered with Waterkeepers around the country, and their support has been essential in emergency situations like oil spills, hurricanes, and other disasters that impact local waterways. In 2017, LightHawk pilots helped Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper document a coal train derailment on the Clark Fork River that sent several thousand tons of coal sliding down the river bank.

An aerial image of a coal train that derailed near the Clark Fork River, in Montana. Photo by Cameron Barnes/Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper/LightHawk

We’re lucky to have Eyes Over Puget Sound as a resource as well. The project conducts monthly aerial surveys of the watershed and monitors things like algal blooms and water temperature. Our LightHawk flights allow us to target specific issues that Soundkeeper is working on.

On the most recent patrol, that meant observing a few facilities that have a Sand and Gravel permit under the Clean Water Act, to look for any problematic discharges and to observe best management practices that should be in place at any location with this permit. Our volunteer pilot Jane, who has been flying with LightHawk for almost 25 years, managed to get good visibility of all the sites on our list despite low, dense fog in some areas, and helped Soundkeeper collect images that our enforcement team can use to inform advocacy and Clean Water Act enforcement work.

An aerial view of some shellfish farming in open water.

Past patrols have provided excellent aerial perspective to document various land and water uses around Puget Sound – including salmon net pens, nearshore shellfish aquaculture, maritime activities, industrial facilities and wastewater treatment plants. Photos taken on LightHawk patrols have informed legal actions and advocacy efforts, and are used to more effectively communicate with members and the public. LightHawk patrols have also enabled Soundkeeper to document beautiful and fascinating watersheds, waterway features, water dependent landscapes and quickly changing waterways and estuaries including the recently undammed Elwha River. These photos are used to attract, inspire, and educate Soundkeeper’s members and supportors.

Puget Soundkeeper staff take a selfie with the LightHawk pilot after a flight.

Thank you to LightHawk for this wonderful support of Soundkeeper’s mission to protect the Puget Sound watershed!


Photos: (1,2,3,5,6) Puget Soundkeeper (4) Cameron Barnes/Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper/LightHawk