Stretching almost a hundred miles along the Pacific Ocean is the second largest inland estuary in the United States known as Puget Sound. The inland waters connect with the ocean through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the west and Georgia Strait to the north. This beautiful landscape features some of the most unique habitats which support thousands of wildlife species, including salmon, orcas, and shorebirds.
Despite its beauty and essential environmental impact, the future of Puget Sound is precarious as, over time, human activity has degraded this marine sanctuary. Pollution in the local lakes, seas, and rivers from nearby cities in the state of Washington (Seattle, Olympia, Tacoma and Everett, which constitute a total population of 4 million people) drain into the shores of Puget Sound, creating a variety of environmental problems.
With the global rise in sea levels, the lowland shorelines of this marine sanctuary are drastically altered. The safety of Puget Sound and its inhabitants is jeopardized by floods, drought, and melting snowpacks, all brought by the effects of climate change.
“These facts alone should convince anyone of the urgency and necessity of taking action to preserve and protect one of the largest marine ecosystems in the country,” said Michael Grayum, Governor-appointed AmeriCorps Commissioner through Serve Washington and co-author of the legislation to establish the Puget SoundCorps to support critical projects to help restore and protect Puget Sound.
Since the population growth in the area during the 19th century, water disposal methods have struggled to keep up. Changes in the water chemistry make the area more acidic and toxic to wildlife.
Pollution can come through untreated human waste or failures in the treatment plants such as a broken septic tanks or leaks. Stormwater that runs through the streets, contaminated with nickel, copper and other organic materials from our automobiles and houses, deposits into these low-lying wetlands.
The acidification of Puget Sound’s waters negatively affects aquatic life—namely shellfish, plankton and other fish dependent on strong shells for survival. As more carbon dioxide is produced from fossil fuel use and deforestation, the levels of carbon dioxide increase in the Pacific Ocean and thus, Puget Sound.
Preserving Aquatic Life
There are many physical, biological and chemical factors that determine the levels of dissolved oxygen in water. These include the following: salinity, temperature, and local circulation patterns. Just as humans need clean air to breathe in for oxygen, marine organisms do so too.
Similarly, pollution in the air also affects our waters. Fluctuating levels of oxygen and nitrogen in the water can suffocate aquatic life and directly correlate with human agriculture and the waste it produces.
Much of the marine life that thrives in these waters is used for commercial or recreational purposes, and pollution of harmful chemicals makes these organisms unsafe to consume. Whether it be the remarkable orcas, Chinook king salmon or herring, all of these species are imperiled by the deterioration of their natural habitat.
Using heavy fertilizers, livestock manure and poor water waste treatments can give off excessive nitrogen, contributing to algae growth which depletes oxygen in the water. Waste from such sources also turns the water, which should be a vital spawning area for forage fish, into a breeding ground for pathogenic bacteria.
The Pacific Northwest Coast is already seeing a dramatic increase in sea levels that, if left unchecked, can cause mass devastation to the surrounding ecosystem. Washington’s wetlands provide a source of safe drinking water and play a critical role in preserving watershed health through the following:
- Flood control
- Erosion control
- Groundwater recharge
- Water filtration and purification
Wetlands, colloquially referred to as the nurseries of life, are essential to the preservation of biodiversity but are often treated as disposable and undervalued. Wetlands are developed into agricultural fields that drain all the water stored inland and, in turn, cause further degradation.
Erosion occurs naturally on Puget Sound’s shoreline and is responsible for shaping its beaches and coastlines. Construction of bulkheads and seawalls, if done correctly, can prevent further erosion of the shoreline but at a cost. Neighboring properties and beaches near these sites are impacted by these structures which can result in more loss of habitat.
Development of floodplains in these areas can prevent further loss of wildlife habitat, improve the water quality of our saline seas, and accommodate increasing watershed storms from climate change.
Road to Recovery
Change begins when each of us takes a step in the right direction, no matter how small or big. An individual’s actions may seem like a teardrop in the ocean, but collectively, our efforts can help recuperate and repair damaged ecosystems.
Holding elected officials and representatives accountable through participation in state elections is imperative to ensure that these issues are being addressed accordingly. Calling for support through legislative action and prioritizing budget spending for safeguarding ecological preserves are ways to remind the government of its duty to serve the people – by ensuring clean and safe drinking water for everyone.
Understanding the relevance of certain species of wildlife such as salmon and its importance to tribal communities highlights the need to preserve salmon habitats for future generations to come.
Puget Sound is not only a source of cultural and economic richness, but a biodiverse home for important wildlife and its destruction comes at a high cost which we cannot afford to prolong.