KENNEWICK — Washington state has failed to meet federal requirements that help prioritize cleanup efforts in Puget Sound to help salmon and steelhead listed as threatened there, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Poor water quality has played a key role in the decline of salmon populations in the Puget Sound region of Washington state, the report said.
The report’s findings drew a scathing response from Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., who questioned the focus of some state officials on tearing down the Snake River dams in Eastern Washington in an effort to save salmon populations.
“For the last decade, this (state) administration has been so distracted by misguided efforts to breach the lower Snake River dams that they completely ignored the salmon being poisoned in their own backyard,” said a joint statement by Newhouse; Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore.
They said that not only had the state Department of Ecology violated federal law, but its consistent failure to meet water quality assessment deadlines and “turning a blind eye to ongoing pollution” in Puget Sound harmed the salmon most important to the health of Puget Sound orcas.
Chinook salmon are the primary food for southern resident orcas that reside in Puget Sound in Washington and the Salish Sea waters of British Columbia from late spring through the fall, according to the state.
They also migrate along the West Coast from Northern California to Southeast Alaska and feed on chinook from the Snake River.
The southern resident orca population declined from 98 in 1995 to 75 in the latest Center for Whale Research census, and they have been observed to be in poor physical condition and experiencing difficulty raising calves.
The Washington state Department of Ecology disagreed with the GAO’s focus in the report on deadlines set for every other year to develop a list of water bodies that do not meet water quality standards. Those impaired water bodies then must be given a total maximum daily load, a sort of pollutant budget, for each pollutant.
WA misses deadlines by years
The Impaired Waters List, which is submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under federal Clean Water Act requirements, provides Congress, federal and state agencies, tribes, the public and others with current information on the quality of water, according to the audit report.
The list and the water quality assessment used to prepare it are used in various ways, including helping the Department of Ecology focus its limited resources where most needed, the audit report said.
Another state agency and tribal officials said the list helps them make decisions as they award grants to improve water quality.
In addition, the list provides information for setting pollutant discharge limits in water quality permits, the audit report said.
The list that was due in 2012 was given to EPA in 2015, with revisions in 2016.
The state combined its 2014, 2016 and 2018 lists into a single submission in 2021. The reports due in 2020 and 2022 are expected to be completed in 2024, according to the report.
EPA also missed its deadlines to review and approve the lists.
The audit report lists toxic contaminants, sediment, low levels of dissolved oxygen and warm temperatures as contributing to water quality harmful to salmon in fresh and salt water in the Puget Sound area.
Most recently 6PPD-quinone, a chemical found in tire dust that enters water bodies in stormwater runoff, has been discovered to be extremely toxic to salmon, according to the audit.
Studies have shown that the chemical is lethal within hours of exposure for juvenile coho and within two days of exposure for juvenile steelhead and chinook salmon.
The Puget Sound area waterways also have pollution from wastewater treatment plants and from agriculture and timber operations.
“It doesn’t require an advanced degree to understand that years of dumping raw sewage and pollution into the Puget Sound would decimate salmon populations,” said Newhouse, McMorris Rodgers and Bentz.
“That simple fact is now indisputable with this GAO report, which exposes what we’ve known to be true all along — Gov. (Jay) Inslee and the Washington Department of Ecology are responsible for killing Puget Sound salmon and must be held accountable for their negligence,” they said.
Puget Sound pollution well known
The Department of Ecology in its response to the federal audit acknowledged that water quality assessments were critical, but said that meeting the Clean Water Act’s deadlines for the assessments was “not integral to the success of the state’s salmon recovery efforts.”
“We already know the Puget Sound is impaired with several sources of pollution including excess nutrients from wastewater treatment plants and from nonpoint sources in the watershed,” it said in its response to the GAO.
The report also disregarded the large amount of data the Department of Ecology must assess and the time needed for meaningful tribal consultation and public involvement to prepare required reports, the state agency said. It performs one of the largest and most thorough water quality assessments in the nation.
The state said it would welcome additional federal funding to develop total maximum daily loads for polluted water and to implement actions to meet state water quality standards rather than just improving water quality.
The GAO audit report, which was requested by Congress, said Congress should consider revising the Clean Water Act’s largely voluntary approach to restoring water polluted by nonpoint sources, such as agriculture operations and stormwater runoff not covered by a permit.
It also called on EPA and the Department of Ecology to develop a written plan to meet submission and approval deadlines.