Could an old lagoon renew the bay?
Call it the Great Dead Spot—a gyre in the center of Bellingham Bay held in place and turned like a slow kettle by the action of the Nooksack River, a pool reluctant to release its stale and turbid contents back to the wider Salish Sea. Its contents are eutrophic, low in oxygen and laden with nitrogen and nutrients slurried through agriculture and urban stormwater runoff.
The bay is not healthy, and it is not improving, Valerie Partridge reported in a presentation last week.
Partridge is a research analyst with the Department of Ecology’s Marine Sediment Monitoring Team. Her team monitors ten harbors and bays around Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia, gathering samples from the uppermost layers of deposited silt and soils where tiny marine critters live. The team also measures the health of the water itself, measuring the metals and chemicals and organics in the water column. Over time, these samples yield a snapshot of the health of this benthic layer.
The health of other harbors around Puget Sound is not good, Patridge noted, with declines in the abundance and diversity of marine life observed in many if not most of the sample sites. In Bellingham Bay, the situation is strikingly bad, with marked declines noted in every one of more than two dozen locations where samples were drawn.
Researchers presented their findings and best guesses about these declines at the 2014 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Seattle earlier this month.
“The greatest influence to the health of Puget Sound is, of course, the Pacific Ocean and what is happening there,” Patridge said. And the great and growing influences on the Pacific are atmospheric and hydrological chemical changes arising from global warming.
Our seas are absorbing an enormous amount of carbon, which is changing marine chemistry, making it harder for silicates and calcium carbonates to form. These materials form the hard skeletons of many of the benthic creatures studied.
Even subtle changes in water temperature can effect energy transfer in the food web, and researchers aren’t yet certain declines they’re observing are linear or cyclical. The Pacific Ocean has a gyre, too, and a slow, sloshing oscillation of warmer air and water we call El Niño.
The puzzle for Bellingham Bay, though, is the intensity of the decline—as if the bay is dying from under us.
“These microscopic organisms are very sensitive to their physical environments in terms of temperature, salinity, water depth, light, sediment-water interface conditions oxygen and pollutants,” noted Elizabeth Nesbitt, who presented a paper at the Salish Sea Conference on the rapid deterioration of Bellingham Bay. Nesbitt is a researcher at the Earth and Space Sciences Department at the University of Washington and curator of invertebrate paleontology and micropaleontology at the UW’s Burke Museum.
Paleontology studies the fossil record, and these benthic critters leave a lot of detritus lying around in their skeletons and shells. But we don’t really have a clear idea of what actual fossil conditions were like in Bellingham Bay in even the recent past. The Nooksack River deposits about a half-inch of silt and sediment in the bay each year, and Ecology’s research team only grabs samples to about that depth in each of their study years. You collect a year to compare to a previous year.
No one has ever done a deep bore of Bellingham Bay, noted Barry Wenger, a water quality expert recently retired from the Department of Ecology. He and others—like Todd Eastman and Jude Apple, a marine scientist at Western Washington University’s Shannon Point Marine Center—have poked around the bay’s depths with meager grants from Ecology.
We can take some guesses about the deep history of the bay.
The Nooksack River didn’t always flow into Bellingham Bay. Not terribly long ago, and still in the oral memory of the Salish peoples, the river flowed north into the Fraser. Its action didn’t stir a gyre at the center of the bay. The first scars of white settlement were coal mines, digging a loose, crumbly sort of sub-bituminous lignite from quarries that in some cases stretched out into and under the bay. Later, and for most of a century, milling and pulping industries laid down a heavy layer of wood waste that, in the oxygen-starved bottom of the bay, could take a millennium to decay. Early industries also dumped in a chemical stew of toxins and heavy metals—elemental and methylated mercury compounds, chromium, dioxins and furans—all glued to that wood waste. The City of Bellingham wasn’t innocent, operating several garbage dumps on the waterfront and, for many years, overflowing its sewers into the bay. In the realm of Unknowns, Bellingham Bay is—sadly and horribly—also a designated dumping ground to this day for sediments dredged from other suffering harbors around Puget Sound, a sort of redheaded stepchild of the state’s zero-sum struggle for cleaner waterways.
“It would be good to have those core samples so we can understand the original condition of the bay and things in it that are affecting its health today,” Wenger said.
Old-timers recall a moment right before the enactment of the federal Clean Water Act when Whatcom Waterway, the dug-out channel that connects Whatcom Creek with the deeper waters of the bay, was a chamber of horrors, a bubbling La Brea tarpit of reeking industrial toxins dumped directly into the channel.
“People knew what color of tissue was being made on a particular day by the color of the dyes in the water,” recalls Steve Hood, a water quality engineer at Ecology’s field office in Bellingham.
The Clean Water Act changed that.
The pulp and paper mill responded to federal action with the construction of the ASB, the 37-acre GP Aerated Stabilization Basin, a large lake filled with baffles and channels that allows sediments and contaminants to settle out before freshwater drains—through the force of gravity—through a long pipe and out into the bay. Though aging, the ASB appears watertight and in good repair, Ecology’s engineers said, lined with with a clay especially made to contain contaminants.
The mill’s authorization to discharge that water into Bellingham Bay is governed by a permit issued through the National Pollution Discharge and Elimination System (NPDES) through an application process updated every five years by Ecology.
That pipe hasn’t dribbled a drop since 2008, when industrial operations at Georgia-Pacific West shuttered for good. Georgia Pacific transferred that NPDES permit to the Port of Bellingham and Ecology has routinely stamped its periodic update.
The agency is rethinking that, however, and establishing new standards for the port’s new NPDES permit, said Mark Henderson, who will rewrite that permit as one portion of the state’s overhaul of its industrial stormwater plan. The state allowed GP to flood a much more aromatic stew of industrial byproduct into the bay than is contemplated in the new permit, Henderson said. The new permit anticipates all future discharges will be darn near as clean as the marine environment it enters.
Ecology held a public meeting this week as part of its process to issue the port’s NPDES permit. Several people who spoke expressed concern that, even if realtively clean, the force of water action through the outfall pipe could stir deposits at the bottom of the bay, worsening matters at the benthic layer. Fresh water, lighter than saltwater, floods to the surface when discharged at depth, a turbulent agitation.
Yet it does seem counterinitutive that, at a moment when the bay is receiving fewer toxins than it has in a century, its health is in precipitous decline. And that, in tandem, with the spigot being closed on the ASB.
That outfall pipe is more than a mile long and 60 inches in diameter. At its end is a diffuser with 500 ports, a sieve of sorts that allows water to flow through multiple piercings in the pipe. At the height of industrial operations, Ecology estimates Georgia Pacific could have fed as much as 30 million gallons of water per day into Bellingham Bay, a veritable river from the lake of the ASB, perhaps a source of new flow into the Dead Spot.
“Well, it’s an interesting theory,” Hood laughed. “Discharge stopped at the ASB. The health of the bay is in decline. We don’t know that they’re at all related.”
One thing is certain, though. The construction of the ASB vastly improved the quality of Whatcom Waterway at the height of the mill’s industrial output, turning a toxic river into something markedly less. Perhaps the wastewater treatment lagoon can be put to use in some other creative way, an idle tool for cleaning and bandaging Bellingham’s bruised waterways.
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