You, too, can keep our water clean

As kids growing up in Tacoma in the 1950s and early ‘60s, we didn’t think twice about driving cars that either burned oil or leaked badly.

We didn’t pay much attention to where our dogs pooped (our yard or the neighbors), what we washed our cars with, or how we disposed of old chemicals, pesticides, fertilizer or oil.

After all, we reasoned, it’s Washington, it will be gone after a few good rains. That’s why no one thought much when you dropped a cigarette butt on the ground, let alone what the impact would be if you paved your gravel driveway or parking lot.

It wasn’t that we were slobs or uncaring, just a fact that no one educated us about the effects our actions would have on Commencement Bay and a pristine Puget Sound over the next 50 years. Seemed like the only time we heard about pollution in Commencement Bay back then, it was due to the pulp plants or Tacoma Smelter – all of which have long since shut down.

Of course, we didn’t envision that the population of Tacoma would grow to 207,876 by 2015 and that Pierce County overall would swell from 275,876 in 1950 to nearly 900,000 residents today (per U.S. Census).

Combined with other major cities and counties bordering Puget Sound, the population went from 1.8 million in 1960 to more than 4.4 million by 2008. Washington’s Office of Financial Management now estimates 5.1 million will make the Puget Sound region their home by 2020.



As a result of this growth and development, nearly 70 percent of Puget Sound salt marshes, eelgrass beds and estuaries were damaged or lost to development over the past 125 years, and more than 30 percent of Puget Sound’s 2,500 miles of shoreline were reinforced by seawalls, bulkheads and other structures that destroyed habitat for young salmon and other marine life, according to the state Department of Ecology (DOE).

While most didn’t predict this kind of population growth and urbanization in our lifetime, we also failed to foresee the dramatic impact it would have on one of the world’s most fragile estuary systems, and that we would reach the point where the water that washes off our roads, roofs and developed areas is now the leading environmental threat to Puget Sound.

“It’s the main culprit and leading cause of pollution in Commencement Bay and Puget Sound,” City of Tacoma Environmental Services environmental engineer Shauna Hansen affirmed. “And dealing with stormwater is a very complex problem with no single solution.”



Stormwater runoff now accounts for more than 75 percent of all pollution in Puget Sound, per the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency created to coordinate the efforts of state, federal and local governments and tribes, as well as dozens of non-profit citizen groups involved in the recovery of Puget Sound since passage of the federal Clean Water Act in the early 1970s.

Even though most commercial and industrial development has been regulated extensively under some of the most stringent water-quality standards in the nation since the early 1990s, by 2008 the DOE reported that 549 streams, rivers and lakes in the Puget Sound basin were impaired by “poor water quality,” mostly from polluted stormwater runoff.

Even today, the DOE estimates that Puget Sound still “receives millions of pounds of toxic chemicals every year from surface runoff, groundwater discharges, and municipal and wastewater outfall pipes” containing oil, grease, PCBs, phthalates, copper, lead, zinc, and other toxins that concentrate in urban bays and now threaten the state’s $147 million-per-year commercial and recreational fish industry, as well as the $9.5 billion tourism industry.



“The rate of damage to Puget Sound continues to exceed the rate of healing. That’s a pattern we need to change,” Sheida Sahandy, Puget Sound Partnership executive director,  noted in regards to one of several legislative bills introduced over the years to provide increased funding, resources and protection for Puget Sound as the largest estuary in the United States by water volume, a water body of national significance on par with the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes.

In order to change the pattern, most experts agree we need to think about polluted stormwater runoff.

“Most people think stormwater is treated at Tacoma’s wastewater treatment plant, but it’s not,” Hansen explained. “For the most part, all stormwater runs off roadways and down storm drains directly into our creeks, streams and the Sound.”



In general, stormwater systems aren’t the same as wastewater systems that process human waste and sewage and treat it before releasing into the Sound. Stormwater systems basically catch, channel and divert surface water runoff directly into Puget Sound untreated.

In most Puget Sound communities, the two systems aren’t connected due to the high runoff volumes in a region that receives 39-plus inches of rain each year. Wastewater treatment plants that are connected to storm pipes are more often overrun with stormwater during peak rain periods, thus sending raw sewage into the Sound along with the untreated stormwater.

That’s why the City of Tacoma Environmental Services Department maintains and operates a separate stormwater system of 500 miles of underground stormwater pipe, 18,000 storm drains, and numerous stormwater ponds, swales and other structures that all manage stormwater runoff alone. All three services work together to protect Tacoma’s water quality downstream.

The Environmental Services Department also oversees Solid Waste Management (garbage, recycling, food/yard waste) as well as Wastewater Management, with more than 700 miles of sewer pipe that feed two treatment plants that process 10 billion gallons of wastewater each year.

Compounding Tacoma’s surface water management challenge is the fact the city is bordered by miles of Puget Sound shoreline, urban creeks, wetlands and steep slopes, a very active Port of Tacoma, and is at the receiving end of tons of various pollutants, garbage and debris that flow down the Puyallup River and other natural drainages directly into the port and into Commencement Bay.



At this point, it’s impractical to build treatment plants that can capture all stormwater, to treat and remove all the water pollution before reaching the Sound. The price would be “astronomical,” Hansen said.

“It’s a big soup of everything, never just one pollutant causing the problem,” Hansen said “And the mix can vary from storm to storm. If we have a long period without rain, we tend to see more oils and toxins running off streets and parking lots.”

And it’s not just the dirt, oil, and litter that wash off the roadways and pollute surface waters. Everything from dog poop to yard and garden chemicals are adding fuel to the fire. Even the soaps we wash our cars with or the cigarette butts we casually discard are having major effects.

“You wouldn’t think a cigarette butt would be that big of a deal, but they all add up,” Hansen said. “We’ve even see large islands of cigarette butts piling up at the end of some of the stormwater outfalls out in the waterways on occasion. And we know many of the pollutants carried by stormwater are very toxic to marine life.”

With no single engineered solution that can deal with all forms of surface water pollution, most efforts to clean up Puget Sound are focused on preventing the sources of pollution upstream before they reach water in the first place, as well as restoring sites already affected by industry and urbanization.



Housed at the Center for Urban Waters on East D Street in Tacoma, the Environmental Services Department conducts dozens of outreach programs to educate residents and businesses on how they can help mitigate surfacewater pollution, as well as coordinate ongoing stormwater monitoring and source control investigations.

“The first and most important thing is to simply report it,” Hansen said. “If you see any kind of pollution with the potential to pollute waterways or stormwater, please give us a call so we can deal with it before it becomes a huge problem.”

Besides operating a 24-hour City of Tacoma Water Pollution Hotline (253-383-2429), Environmental Services provides information on how to:

  • Prevent or report street flooding and pollution.
  • Sponsor a neighborhood pet waste station.
  • Volunteer to mark storm drains.
  • Learn how to help the rain soak in at home using rain barrels, rain gardens, healthy soils, plants and trees to  reduce runoff.

In some cases, the city also provides Sewer Conversation Loans to help homeowners repair broken side sewers, as well as Environment Services Sponsorships for organizations and events that protect, enhance or restore Tacoma’s environment. The city also awards up to $50,000 a year in Make-A-Splash grants for projects that help educate residents and protect and restore surface water resources within Tacoma city limits.



A shining example of a regionally sponsored effort to reduce stormwater pollution is the “Don’t Drip and Drive” campaign. At, vehicle owners can find many different tools with information on how to spot car leaks or, better yet, schedule a free inspection at a participating auto shop or attend a free workshop on how to properly maintain your vehicle. Leaks of oil, coolants, brake and transmission fluids are the largest polluters of Puget Sound.

The City of Tacoma, as well as most counties, municipalities, tribes, non-profit organizations and agencies that are dedicated to combatting pollution in Puget Sound, also participate in Puget Sound Starts Here (, an ongoing regional public awareness campaign that hopes to get more people inspired and engaged in protecting and restoring Puget Sound.

Besides education and outreach programs to curb the increase in stormwater pollution, Tacoma Environmental Services also leads ongoing restoration projects and ongoing monitoring of critical shoreline habitat and stormwater impacts.

Tacoma recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of completion of the $105 million cleanup of the Thea Foss and Wheeler-Osgood waterways that removed and capped contaminated sediment left over from historic waterfront industrial activities. The cleanup also led to the restoration of shoreline habitats and upland property redevelopment with “clean” waterfront occupants like condominiums, marinas, museums, and the Center for Urban Waters water-quality research center. The city continues to monitor the stormwater to the waterway and has seen a significant decrease in stormwater pollution over the past decade, which is good news.

“It’s amazing to think of what these areas were like only 20 years ago. They have come a long way,” Hansen points out.

The Port of Tacoma has also stepped up its stormwater pollution mitigation efforts over the past several years as runoff has taken a greater importance and focus in the permitting process for existing and new industrial customers in what is now one of the most regulated waterways in the world.

For example, the Department of Ecology permits now require all industrial transportation facilities to minimize metals (copper, zinc, etc.) and sediment pollutants in stormwater runoff, not just separate the oil from the water as in the old days.

For the most part, this requires treating stormwater runoff to remove the pollutants at the source, which can present a serious challenge to an industrial area like a maritime port.

The Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA, comprised of the ports of Tacoma and Seattle) employs several environmental specialists and engineers that work with tenants to recommend treatment projects and systems and test new and existing treatment methods to find the best solutions for a maritime environment.

At the Port of Tacoma, several innovative stormwater treatment projects have been implemented, including a four-stage, 600-foot-long biofiltration system at the West Hylebos Terminal that can also remove pollutants. The port’s intermodal yard also implemented a “jellyfish” system in 2014 to assist in clean-water efforts. And, an ongoing pilot project to retrofit an oil/water separator at the breakbulk terminal at East Blair is designed to filter out metals from water. Once completed and tested, this cost-effective ($25,000) solution can be provided to other NWSA partners and properties.



“Though we have accomplished a lot over the past decade, we still have a long way to go,” Hansen said. “And we can only get there if every person helps in one way or another in preventing the causes for stormwater pollution in the first place.”

Though large-scale government and industrial prevention and restoration efforts are helping, the fact remains the majority of stormwater pollution comes from our roads, driveways and back yards, not industrial and commercial sites. Which means Puget Sound recovery relies heavily on us to fix our car leaks, pick up the pet poop, wash our cars at eco-friendly car washes, pick up our litter, plastic bottles and cigarette butts, and look for ways to let the rainwater the rainwater soak in around our homes like connecting roof downspouts into rain barrels, rain gardens, or letting them disperse into your yard.  Would you like to see some of these ideas in action? Visit the EnviroHouse permanent demonstration home showcasing green building and natural landscaping solutions.  It’s located at the City of Tacoma Recovery and Transfer Center and open for visitors Wednesday through Sunday throughout the year (

As a recently retired senior with some spare time on his hands, volunteering to assist any one of dozens of non-profit groups devoted to the recovery of Puget Sound may prove to be a very rewarding experience and a way to atone for the misdeeds of my youth.

The Tacoma Environmental Services Department Environews e-mail announcement group and the Puget Sound Starts Here websites offer dozens of resources, seminars and events that can all use volunteers to help get the word out. Take, for example, Citizens for a Healthy Bay (, one of the leading non-profit citizen groups that is focused entirely on Commencement Bay. They sponsor numerous cleanup events where you can get your hands dirty, as well as state educational and awareness events. They also coordinate bay patrols with volunteer boat owners always on the lookout for pollution in Commencement Bay.


Steve Kruse, who wrote this article, is a freelance writer an

This article is presented under the sponsorship of the City of Tacoma and the Make a Splash grant program.

d former Tacoma resident.