The “Dead Zone” Next Door

Los Angeles Times
May 6, 2004
By Alex Tizon

BELFAIR, Wash. – Scuba diver Jerry Ehrlich saw the signs of something ominous in Hood Canal starting in the summer of 2002. The blunt-nosed six-gill sharks swimming in the shallows caught his attention first. You never see that, he thought. Such sharks, which have a strong aversion to light, almost never leave deep water. There were other deep-water dwellers — dogfish, octopuses, shrimp — squirming in the shallows, as if trying to escape to shore.

Deeper down, Ehrlich spotted wolf eels, which usually stay close to their dens, meandering in open water. He saw rockfish that couldn’t swim straight. He found abandoned octopus dens full of rotting eggs, and sea anemones, normally bright and erect, slumped flaccidly against hard ground.

In 2003, fish began to die. Ehrlich, along with residents and scientists, witnessed three major fish kills. Tens of thousands of surf perch, greenlings and 25 other species washed up onto rocky beaches. The state closed the canal to fishing for the first time, and tests were conducted. The results corroborated what Ehrlich, who has explored these waters for three decades, and others suspected: Hood Canal, a scenic deep-water arm of Puget Sound and once a glimmering symbol of Washington’s natural bounty, was choking to death.

Pollution brought on by rapid population growth and development has caused oxygen levels in the water to drop, rendering one large section of the canal a “dead zone.”

The scene “is pretty frightening,” said Ehrlich, 56. he growing dead zone threatens not just sea life — Hood Canal has one of the richest shellfish beds in Puget Sound — but the entire ecosystem, a panoply of birds and mammals, forests, and a vast network of salmon-rich rivers and streams. Also at stake is the canal’s image as a pristine outpost, the last natural barrier protecting the Olympic Peninsula from the plagues of urban sprawl. The canal makes up the peninsula’s still-wild eastern edge, a watery shield against the westward push of people and machines.

Gov. Gary Locke warned recently that the canal could turn into a “dead sea.” If that happened, Washington would lose “one of its great jewels,” said state fishery biologist Duane Fagergren. The state also could see the effluence of sprawl trickle into the peninsula, one of the last great unspoiled areas in the West, Fagergren said.

Dead zones are created by large concentrations of people and the pollution they generate. Researchers have identified dead zones in Los Angeles Harbor, Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The phenomenon has been known for years to environmental scientists but is only now getting widespread attention. The United Nations in March identified coastal dead zones as the most serious emerging environmental problem in the oceans.

The problem, called eutrophication, results from people doing everyday things like flushing toilets, driving cars and taking care of lawns.

Auto emissions (washed down by rain), lawn fertilizers, sewage, and storm water runoff all feed nitrogen and other nutrients into the water. The nutrients generate plankton blooms, which die after a few days, sinking to the bottom, where decomposition uses up oxygen. The lack of oxygen kills fish and sea plants, which decompose and use up most of the remaining oxygen.

The result of this cycle over many years is evident in Hood Canal today. Now the people whose lives touch the canal — residents, weekenders, bureaucrats and scientists — face a problem that defies easy solutions. Unlike the water-fouling associated with industry in the 1960s and ’70s, where the solution was purifying the discharges or closing off the drains, the causes of the Hood Canal dead zone are harder to isolate because there are so many potential sources.

“This kind of pollution doesn’t come from the end of a pipe,” says Donald F. Boesch, a University of Maryland oceanographer who conducted a 2003 study of dead zones for the Pew Oceans Commission. There are no factories to blame, no oily slicks to clean up. This kind of pollution, unless one knows what to look for, is hard to see. Even Ehrlich says the canal is still “beautiful and wonderful and magical” on the outside. It’s below the surface that he sees a different picture.

*

Like most of Puget Sound, the waters of Hood Canal are a dark green, turning gunmetal gray on cloudy days. On maps, the canal looks like an elongated fishhook, stretching 62 miles north to south, with the curve of the hook curling east. On average, the canal is about a mile-and-a-half wide. It’s surrounded on all sides by lush forests. To the west tower the Olympic Mountains; to the east, Seattle; beyond that, the Cascade Range.

At the top of the hook, there’s the Naval Submarine Base Bangor, home port for the Pacific fleet of eight Trident nuclear submarines. Sixty miles south, on the point of the hook, sits the unincorporated but rapidly growing community of Belfair. In between and along the shores are a handful of small towns and isolated clusters of homes.

The dead zone lies in the lower third of the canal, comprising the entire hook area, from Belfair to Hamma Hamma. It’s the most densely populated section of the canal. Cabins and vacation homes line the shore on both sides. New houses sparkle in the hills above the canal, their white vinyl window frames gleaming like streaks of pearl.

The canal stretches through three counties: Mason, Kitsap and Jefferson. Since 1980, the population in those counties has grown by nearly 120,000 to a total of 310,000. An estimated 54,000 people live in the Hood Canal watershed, about 20,000 in the Belfair area. Before the 1980s, the canal was mostly a weekend escape for city-dwellers. The Gates family, of Microsoft fame, owns a retreat along the canal, as do members of the Nordstrom department store family.

In years past, the most common sights at the canal were often of recreation: people digging for clams or oysters on the beaches, boaters and Jet Skiers riding the waves between private docks, children fishing along the shore. Today, it’s more common to see someone driving to and from work. The settlements along the canal have become bedroom communities; year-round residents commute to Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and Bremerton — all within an hour’s drive of Belfair.

Karen Lippy, a high school teacher who came to Belfair 20 years ago, worries about the number of people moving to the area. Lippy, 45, teaches an environmental class that explores issues surrounding the canal. “This is a critical time,” she says. “If we want to save it, we’re going to have to act soon.”

The region’s infrastructure has not kept pace with the population. Belfair, once a quaint tourist stop, has grown into a full-fledged town with supermarkets, video stores and strip malls — all without a sewer system. Nearly all cabins and homes on lower Hood Canal are on septic systems, many of them decades old.

“Flushing” is a theme that comes up often in discussions about the low-oxygen problem. Researchers theorize that at least some of the nitrogen fed into the canal comes from toilets that drain into failed septic systems, which leach sewage and waste through the soil and into the canal’s waters. Because of its geography, the canal doesn’t circulate as well as the rest of Puget Sound, where pollutants are flushed away by tides, waves and rivers.

Hood Canal actually isn’t a canal, which implies openings on both ends; it’s a fjord, closed on one end. Capt. George Vancouver, in 1792, named it after a British lord, but the name he chose was Hood Channel. The body of water was mistakenly called Hood Canal on maps, and the name stuck. The canal, as deep as 600 feet in some places and only a few feet deep in others, takes as long as a year to clean itself out. Rivers such as the Skokomish are the main source of fresh water. River flows have been impeded by dams and development.

There has always been a small area of low oxygen in the hook portion, but the condition was seasonal, lasting only a few weeks or months. In the last two years, the dead zone has grown dramatically and lasted year-round, said Jan Newton, senior oceanographer for the state Department of Ecology.

Fish and sea plants need between 5 and 20 parts per million of dissolved oxygen to survive. Below 5 ppm, fish are subject to stress, and below 3 ppm, most sea life can’t survive. For much of the last two years, a huge section of the lower canal – from Belfair to Hamma Hamma – has measured below 2 ppm of dissolved oxygen. “That’s lower than anything we’ve ever seen in these waters,” Newton says. “It makes you wonder whether there’s anything left down there.”

*

One of Ehrlich’s favorite dive spots is just off Sund Rock, in the lower canal, a place named after the man who settled the land in the 1890s, and whose grandson, Bob Sund, still lives there. Sund’s home perches above a gravel beach. Like Ehrlich, Sund is distressed by the condition of the canal.

At the moment, Sund, a 74-year-old retired high school principal, stands at the water’s edge, near some large boulders, pointing to various places along the shoreline where once-abundant life — sea lettuce and kelp — have been erased, leaving only barren rock. He picks up a stone and throws it about 15 feet in the water.

“There used to be an eelgrass bed right there,” he says.

Baby salmon used to feed on organisms clinging to the blades of grass. Herring used to lay their eggs in there, he says. When the eelgrass died off, the fish disappeared and the gravel on his beach, which was held in place by the grass, began sliding into the canal. The gravel slide exposed topsoil, which began to erode, harming plants on the beach. When the fish disappeared, the seals and birds –— mostly ospreys and eagles — that used to eat them stopped coming around. The orcas that used to eat the seals haven’t been seen around Sund Rock in a long time.

“Everything’s connected. It’s just a giant web,” Sund says. “One thing goes, the rest follow.”

Locke and U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), who owns a house on the canal, announced an aggressive recovery plan in February that would include federal, state and local efforts, setting aside millions of dollars for the project. Both the governor and congressman acknowledged the problem would take years to study and address.

A preliminary plan to be released today was expected to propose immediate action, such as educating canal residents to service their septic tanks, avoid lawn fertilizers and not dump waste along the shorelines. Long-term solutions will be more difficult, says Jay Watson, director of the council in charge of coordinating all the agencies. Take septic tanks, Watson says. There are an estimated 5,500 septic systems in the lower canal. Nobody knows how much of the dead zone is caused by sewage from failed tanks. But even if it were determined to be a major cause, the ruling jurisdiction, Mason County, wouldn’t have the money to do anything about it.

The county has one part-time employee assigned to regulate septic tanks but no ordinance requiring homeowners to allow the inspector onto their property. “It takes a full search warrant issued by a judge,” says Watson. A warrant requires probable cause, which is difficult to establish because septic tanks are underground. Replacing failed septic systems would cost $3,000 to $10,000 each, and many property owners would resist spending money on a problem that wasn’t visible, Watson says. Any solution would almost certainly mean an increase in local taxes. Says Watson: “You say ‘tax increase’ around here and the people will run you out on a rail.”

Meanwhile, volunteer organizations — salmon recovery groups and environmental and social organizations — have signed up with the state to take weekly measurements of the canal’s oxygen levels. They report their findings to Newton, the oceanographer, who will play an instrumental role in the recovery effort.

Ehrlich, who owns a small office supply business in Olympia, continues his weekly dive in the canal. He still inventories the changing seascape and talks to anybody who will listen about what he sees. Sund regularly gets in a small rowboat and paddles along the shoreline in front of his house, watching the beach as if it were an old, dying friend. “I hope they do something about all this,” Sund says. “I hope they don’t just study, study, study, and let years go by. They need to act before it’s too late.”