Our sewage is choking the Sound. The Department of Ecology has known for decades that wastewater treatment plants are causing or contributing to water quality violations throughout Puget Sound. Washington’s wastewater treatment plants are the biggest source of anthropogenic nitrogen by far.

This nutrient pollution causes increased plant and algae growth which reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen in water. Many parts of Puget Sound have oxygen levels that fall below what is needed for marine life to thrive, causing fish kills and contributing to salmon declines region-wide. Some algal blooms are harmful to humans and animals, algal blooms consistently cause beach closures throughout Puget Sound and was the cause of many dog deaths throughout the country.

Washington Department of Ecology has been studying the issue for years, publishing a South Sound Dissolved Oxygen Study in 2014, conducting a series of meetings under the Nutrient Source Reduction Project, as well as utilizing their Salish Sea Model to study potential impacts.  Ecology plans to conduct more modeling over the next year or two, however, there is a lot of information available already on the relative contribution of Wastewater Treatment Plants to the dissolved oxygen problem in Puget Sound.  We cannot fall into the trap of “paralysis by analysis,” and continue to study the issue without also making significant changes to mitigate pollution from wastewater treatment plants. That’s why we support a Nutrients General Permit for Puget Sound.

Nutrients General Permit

Washington’s wastewater treatment plants are, for the most part, utilizing technology that was “state of the art” in the 1950s. We can do better.

Ecology recently announced a preliminary determination to develop a Nutrients General Permit that applies to wastewater treatment plants in Puget Sound. This means that, in addition to individual Clean Water Act Permits, our sewage treatment plants will also have to comply with a general Clean Water Act Permit to reduce nutrients. Puget Soundkeeper supports a Nutrients General Permit.

To be effective and fair, the permit should apply to all wastewater treatment plants in the Puget Sound watershed – not just plants discharging directly to Puget Sound, but also those up-river. Further, issuance of a general nutrients permit can more effectively reduce pollution when paired with additional necessary actions, such as developing water quality criteria for Nitrogen and Phosphorus, and continuing to develop and implement Total Maximum Daily Loads – or pollution cleanup plans – for nutrient impaired waters in Washington.

Population growth and climate change are compounding pressures that make this dire situation even more urgent. The region’s total population is now 4.2 million, according to Washington State Office of Financial Management, and according to the Puget Sound Regional Council, it will grow to nearly 6 million people by 2050. Additional people means additional sewage flows heading to our wastewater treatment plants. Changing climate patterns, including rising temperatures, increased snowmelt and droughts, are already impacting water quantity and quality, exacerbating existing pollution issues.

The danger is here. We must act now to increase capacity, reduce pollution, and improve the handling of waste at municipal wastewater treatment plants in our region. In addition to supporting a Nutrients General Permit for Puget Sound, Soundkeeper also works on various stakeholder groups to reduce combined sewer overflows to Puget Sound, to stop pollution from septic systems statewide, and to implement best management practices for agricultural pollution. We cannot risk Puget Sound becoming a deadzone.

See our full letter with comments on the Nutrients General Permit to the Department of Ecology here.