When Europeans arrived in Puget Sound they found a rich abundance of resources that had sustained native populations for thousands of years. New levels of technology allowed exploitation of these resources at a level that was far higher than ever before, and in a few decades almost all the forests had been cut, some species of animals had been harvested to the point of extinction, and many other populations of animals were in severe decline. Puget Sound and other waterways were also used as places to dump waste. As the population has grown, the pressure on our waters has only increased.
We sometimes think only of chemical pollutants, but in reality pollution is any type of contaminant—biological, physical or chemical—in excess of its natural range. This includes viruses and bacteria, silt and sediment, and invasive species. Our current priorities include pollution from industrial agriculture, sewage, fossil fuel production, and stormwater runoff.
Historical Sources of Pollution
The first major impact by Europeans on the Puget Sound environment was through logging. In 1853, Henry Yesler built the first steam driven mill on Puget Sound; by 1883, William Renton noted that nearly all the timber contiguous to Puget Sound had been removed. Logging frees huge amounts of sediment, which washes into streams, destroying habitat and making it difficult for fish and small stream organisms to breathe and eat.
The first pulp mills in Puget Sound in the 1920’s also discharged large amounts of pollutants in the form of toxic substances like dioxins, used in the paper bleaching process. Their discharge had devastating effects on the shellfish industry in southern Puget Sound, and the residual contamination at some sites remains a problem today. State permits for wastewater discharges were not required until 1955, and pulp mills and other industrial dischargers only began treating their discharges in the early 1960s.
Current Pollution Issues
There are many sources of pollution affecting Puget Sound today, from oil spills to pharmaceuticals in our waterways. Most pollution is classified as either “point source”, pollution that comes from a single facility, pipe or vessel, or “non-point source”, pollution that comes from many sources across the region.
Point Source Pollution
Although industrial facilities are required to have permits to discharge into public waters, a very large amount of toxic material still enters Puget Sound, other waterways, and our state’s air from point sources. Learn more about the state’s toxic releases, by industry. Soundkeeper works to get strong pollution permits for industry and enforces those permits by taking legal action under the Clean Water Act against facilities that violate their permit and continue to pollute the Sound.
Even small oil spills threaten wildlife and water quality, and the impact of a large spill can be catastrophic. Oil kills seabirds, fish and marine mammals and persists in the environment for years, even when the best possible cleanup technology is applied. Soundkeeper reports any oil spills observed on boat and kayak patrols, no matter how small, and has a role in oil spill prevention planning and legislation through participation in:
- The Oil Transfer Operations Advisory Committee
- The Washington Oil Spill Rules Advisory Committee
- The Pacific Oil Spill Prevention Education Team (POSPET) which coordinates boater education, spill reporting and other pollution prevention efforts from California to Alaska (including British Columbia).
Nonpoint Source Pollution
The Environmental Protection Agency has made nonpoint source pollution a priority, but regulation is extremely difficult. Soundkeeper works on a number of nonpoint pollution issues, including polluted stormwater runoff and marine debris. Many of the solutions to nonpoint pollution involve individual actions that can reduce the overall burden on our waters.
Polluted Stormwater Runoff
Polluted stormwater runoff is the number one toxic threat to Puget Sound. Rain washes chemicals, fertilizers, oil, auto fluids, and litter off roads and sidewalks directly into our waterways. Most stormwater systems do not go through any kind of treatment, and urban runoff can be so toxic that it kills fish in less than three hours. Researchers are currently tracking a list of contaminants of emerging concern from consumer products and industry that are often found in stormwater discharge.
Sustainable farming, local food sources and open spaces are worth protecting. But when water quality suffers due to pollution concerns we must consider pathways to improvement. Agricultural pollution is the largest source of pollution to waterways nationwide. Around the country and in Washington State, agricultural pollution impairs the biological function and human uses of many streams, rivers, lakes and bays. Bacteria and other pathogens contaminate the water, sediment washed off bare fields destroys fish habitat, and nutrient pollution from fertilizers causes harmful algal blooms, which can create toxic or low oxygen conditions.
Many areas now have large CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) where animals live in feedlots and manure is stored in huge lagoons. The raw manure produced at CAFOs is often beyond the capacity of the available land, and much of it washes into waterways or seeps into groundwater, contaminating waterways with nitrates and fecal coliform bacteria.
Marine debris includes human-made trash, discarded equipment and other solid material that enters our oceans and waterways and ends up floating out to sea or fouling our beaches and shorelines. Most marine debris is plastic, and all of it is generated by humans. Cigarette butts are the most commonly found item on beaches and shorelines worldwide. The only solutions to marine debris are stopping it at the source, by using fewer disposable items and properly disposing of trash, and cleaning up the existing debris that litters Puget Sound shorelines and waterways.
What you can do
It can be overwhelming to think about the many ways that pollution is contaminating our waters. Luckily, there are many ways to be part of the solution.
- Do your part to stop pollution! Drive less (bike, walk, bus, carpool), fix vehicle oil leaks, rely on natural yard care rather than chemicals, report pollution when you see it happen, wash your car on your lawn or at a commercial car wash, and try to avoid single-use plastics and excessive packaging.
- Join a volunteer cleanup or boat patrol.
- Share your knowledge with friends and family.
- Give what you can to protect Puget Sound for future generations.