Puyallup River basin TMDLs

The Puyallup River drainage basin covers approximately 970 square miles in the Puget Sound lowlands. We are working in this basin to address several water quality impairments.

Water quality issues

The major streams of the basin are the Puyallup River and its two largest tributaries, the White and Carbon rivers. The lower reach of the Puyallup River is a relatively flat floodplain ranging in elevation from sea level at Commencement Bay to approximately 50 feet at the confluence of the White and Puyallup rivers. Industrial land-use activity is predominant in the lower reaches.

Historically, much of the lower Puyallup valley above the tide flats was used for agriculture. Small farms producing vegetables, flower bulbs, and berries are declining in numbers due to encroachment of residential and commercial development. Most of the upland developments are light to medium density residential areas. Gravel is mined commercially at several locations along the northeast and southwest valley walls.

Water bodies in the Puyallup River basin have been listed for several parameters because they did not meet Washington's water quality standards. Parameters of concern include biological oxygen demand (BOD), ammonia, fecal coliform bacteria, pH, sediment, and temperature.

Status of the projects

Water quality improvement projects, or total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), were developed on the Puyallup and White rivers. Several TMDLs have been completed for the Puyallup watershed and for individual tributaries that cover a variety of parameters including fecal coliform bacteria, BOD, ammonia, and temperature. Also a project to address pH problems in the lower White River is in development.

Dissolved oxygen, biological oxygen demand, and ammonia

A TMDL was developed that established waste load allocations for point sources for BOD, ammonia, and chlorine in the Puyallup River basin. Dischargers permitted through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) include ten municipalities, four industrial discharges, and four fish hatcheries. Background and nonpoint source loads were also assessed. In addition to considering existing discharges and nonpoint loads, the potential impact of future dischargers was examined.

A preventative water quality improvement project (TMDL) was completed and the final report approved by the EPA in November 1994. Later, new information became available that raised questions regarding the ability of the river capacity to assimilate additional 5-day Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD5) and ammonia loads.

Ecology is working with partners in the Puyallup River watershed on a focused TMDL implementation effort. This work includes increased education and outreach, a greater field presence to identify and eliminate nonpoint sources, and work with NPDES permit managers and permitees to ensure TMDL point source requirements are met. These efforts should help to reduce or eliminate sources of excess nutrients.

Fecal coliform bacteria

The Puyallup River and several tributaries have fecal coliform bacteria levels higher than Washington’s allowed standards for freshwater streams. These typically harmless bacteria tend to exist along with disease-causing bacteria and viruses (i.e., pathogens), so they indicate the potential for pathogens in the water.

We worked with local governments, resident groups, and permit holders to develop actions needed to reduce fecal coliform in the Puyallup River watershed. The resulting water quality improvement report contains the results of the TMDL study and an implementation plan. The plan identifies implementation activities for various partners, many of which are already underway. EPA approved the final TMDL report in September 2011.

We are working with partners in the Puyallup River watershed on a focused TMDL implementation effort. This work includes increased education and outreach, a greater field presence to identify and eliminate nonpoint sources, and work with NPDES permit managers and permittees to ensure TMDL point source requirements are met. These efforts should help to reduce the fecal coliform problem.

White River

Work on the White River is divided into the lower and upper White River.

Ecology, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, and the EPA are jointly working on the Lower White River pH TMDL. We conducted monitoring in 2012 and modeling has been completed. The TMDL report is currently in development.

In the upper White River, water temperatures exceed state water quality standards in several locations. The river is listed as a spawning area for Chinook salmon and other salmonids. The river was also listed for sediment levels exceeding state water quality standards. The final TMDL report was approved by EPA in 2004. The implementation plan was completed in 2006. Most of the implementation recommendations were assigned to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). They are decommissioning roads as funds allow and plantings have occurred, but it takes time to grow trees to a level where they will produce effective shade for the river.

Why this matters

Ammonia is a measure of nitrogen, a nutrient that can increase the growth of plants and algae in water. Large concentrations of ammonia in a stream or lake can create a large oxygen demand caused by the conversion of ammonia to nitrate, called "nitrification." High concentrations of nitrate in wastewater treatment plant effluent can cause algae to grow. Dead and decaying algae can cause oxygen depletion which can kill fish and other aquatic organisms in streams. Higher-than-normal levels of nutrients in the water can also change the water’s pH and clarity. In addition, increased algae and plants can be ugly, create odor problems when they decompose, and interfere with recreational activities like boating and swimming.

Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) is the amount of oxygen required by aerobic microorganisms (organisms that need oxygen to survive) to break down organic matter in water.

Fecal coliform is a type of bacteria found in the feces of warm-blooded animals and humans. When found in water bodies it can be an indicator of the presence of other disease-carrying organisms. It can get into water bodies from failing septic systems and animal waste. High levels of fecal coliform in the water can affect the economy, public health, and environmental quality.

pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of the water. Fish and other aquatic species thrive in water with pH values between 6.5 - 8.5 (7 is considered neutral). If the pH is too high, fish might die.

Too much sediment in the water can irritate fish gills and make it difficult for them to breathe. It also suffocates salmon egg nests.

Threatened and endangered salmon need cold, clean water to survive. If the water is too warm, the salmon are less able to successfully spawn, and may suffer other health effects.