It’s easy to forget about water when you’re surrounded by it.
But before all that rain and sprinkler runoff reaches Puget Sound, it first flows down streams, streets and ditches.
Along the way it can pick up some nasty pollutants.
Water, and everything it washes downstream, will be the theme of “Inside Radiolab with Robert Krulwich” on Jan. 22 at the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts in Tacoma.
Radiolab explores in depth a variety of subjects, often with a scientific theme. In the Northwest, environmentalists and others are concerned with cleaning up water before it hits Puget Sound. That, in turn, cleans up the Sound.
Projects such as the city of Tacoma and Metro Parks’ new “green” stormwater treatment facility aim to do just that.
Four water experts will be part of a live panel at the “Radiolab” event.
Splenda isn’t just in our coffee, diet cola and ice cream. It’s also flowing down our streams, settling in our lakes and swirling around Puget Sound.
That’s what University of Washington Tacoma professor Joel Baker has found in every type of surface water he tests as science director at the Center for Urban Waters.
“Sucralose — the main ingredient in Splenda — we find that top to bottom, left to right,” Baker said. “It’s everywhere. We even find it in remote streams.”
It’s so prevalent that Baker and his fellow researchers use it as a tracer for human activity. Where there are humans, Splenda is sure to follow.
But it’s not just artificial sweeteners that add to Puget Sound’s strange brew. Baker’s testing equipment is so sensitive that he finds just about anything he’s looking for. Even DDT, banned since the 1970s because of its harmful effects on birds, can still be found in trace amounts.
Think of Baker’s team as the “CSI” of water science.
“What we find in the water is by and large what you find in your house, from refrigerators to medicine cabinets,” he said.
That list includes caffeine, sunscreen, preservatives and lots of pharmaceuticals: over-the-counter, prescription and illicit.
There is some good news: Levels of banned chemicals such as PCBs, dioxins, DDT and fire retardants diminish over time.
“If you stop putting chemicals in the environment, the concentration will decrease,” Baker said.
But the environment has a long memory.
“It takes a long time to clean out,” he said.
Baker advises the federal Environmental Protection Agency and state and local jurisdictions.
“We’re all about trying to keep a body of water clean or trying to figure out where the pollutants come from,” he said.
Puget Sound has distinct challenges when it comes to dealing with pollutants in the watershed, Baker said.
While our abundant water can aid in dilution compared with drought-stricken California, our heavy rainfalls can quickly wash months of pollutants into waterways.
Puget Sound itself is in need of a good plumber.
“It’s like a bath tub connected to the ocean with a narrow pipe,” Baker said. “The chemicals get trapped. They are not flushed out, which is not good for us.”
And then there’s the issue of deliberate pollution. Baker questions how much insult or pollution can be put in a body of water before problems start to occur.
“Society uses water as a waste disposal place,” he said. “We always have and probably always will.”
“We all take it for granted,” says Ryan Mello, executive director of the Pierce Conversation District. “We open the tap, and clean water comes out.”
Mello knows that when people think water quality, it’s usually what they’re drinking that most concerns them.
But surface water should be high on the list of people’s concerns, he said. And everyone is a player: Urban, suburban and rural land use all affect water quality, he said.
“The pollutants in urban and suburban areas are often the same, but the solutions are different,” Mello said.
Urban and suburban pollutants include vehicle oil, brake dust, pesticides and fertilizers.
“Those are the major pollutants killing life in Puget Sound,” Mello said.
Rural areas have overlapping but different water quality concerns.
Along with fertilizers and pesticides, agriculture brings animal manure and its associated bacteria. Working of the land exposes it to erosion.
“If not managed properly, it heads to the nearest waterway,” Mello said.
The Conservation District educates farmers and homeowners through clinics and workshops. Staff members also make home visits.
“If they want to do a rain garden, we’ll do a test to see if their yard is appropriate for one,” Mello said.
The district also offers financial assistance and help from volunteers and staff members. It’s partnered with the city of Tacoma and other groups on several local “DePave” projects in which unused or unneeded pavement is replaced with trees and other plants.
“Polluted runoff is our biggest issue,” said Sheida Sahandy, executive director of Puget Sound Partnership.
The state organization mobilizes hundreds of partners who work collaboratively to protect and restore Puget Sound. It’s one of the partners at the Center for Urban Waters.
“Point source pollution is something that regulations got under control pretty well,” she said.
“Point source” refers to pollution from sewage treatment plants, factories and other easy-to-identify singular sources.
Sahandy is more concerned about runoff — “Sort of the grit of everyday life.”
“It ends up on our roads, and when it rains it’s washed into Puget Sound,” she said.
Puget Sound Partnership guides various stakeholders toward shared goals and actions.
“We’re not exactly advocacy in the walk-and-hold-banners sense,” Sahandy said.
When Sahandy says Puget Sound she means all of the Sound region. That can include waterways and habitat.
“From snow caps to whitecaps,” she said.
Puget Sound Partnership often brings together groups that historically have been at odds with each other, including agriculture and fish advocates.
“They might have been working against each other on a micro level, but they realize if they get legislation that benefits Puget Sound, it’s good for both,” she said.
“Everybody has to see some benefits despite the differences.”
Puget Sound Partnership connects groups with technical experts, funding sources and educators. It also measures progress in the ecosystem.
“How many resident orca whales are there? Is eel grass changing?” Sahandy said.
The Puyallup River watershed is 14,409 feet high and 40 miles long, spreading from the glacier-covered slopes of Mount Rainier to the industrial tide flats of Tacoma.
In between, there’s a lot of nature and a lot of people.
In 2012, the Russell Family Foundation launched the Puyallup Watershed Initiative. Unlike the grants the foundation typically funds, the initiative is being built from the ground up.
The effort also has $10 million in funding over 10 years from the foundation.
“It’s a community-led, community-owned organization that’s dedicated to improving social and environmental conditions throughout the Puyallup watershed,” said Jennifer Chang, a program associate at the foundation.
The foundation is setting up a management structure. The initiative should be independent in two years, Chang said.
“The people are the true owners of the Puyallup Watershed Initiative, and over the next couple years, full community ownership will become reality,” she said.
More than 100 organizations, agencies and individuals share at least one trait: They reside, work or recreate in the Puyallup watershed.
“The thought is, let’s take on a specific place — the people that live and work there understand it better than anyone else does,” Chang said.
The various groups have organized around six interest areas — active transportation, agriculture, environmental education, forest lands, just and healthy food system and industrial stormwater.
“We’re bringing people to the table who are not typically at the same table,” Chang said.
The stormwater team is beginning its work on the Tacoma Tideflats.
“Their hope is to move up the watershed and hopefully, one day, to Mount Rainier,” Chang said.
“Our work isn’t just about what a place can do for people, but what people can do for a region,” Chang said.