Ecology denies petition to begin rulemaking to establish nutrient wasteload allocations for a Puget Sound TMDL

On Oct. 10, 2017, Ecology received a rule petition from Northwest Environmental Advocates for us to engage in rulemaking to place wasteload allocations in a rule for a Puget Sound nitrogen Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) — or official water cleanup plan.

Some important things to know to understand this petition

Washington state law (RCW 34.05.330) provides a pathway for any person to petition an agency to request the adoption, amendment, or repeal of any rule.

wasteload allocation is a TMDL term that refers to numeric limits placed on point source discharges of pollution. Point source pollution most commonly refers to the permitted discharge of polluted water out of the end of a pipe.

Denying the petition

We denied the petition in a letter responding to Northwest Environmental Advocates on Dec. 8, 2017. We decided to deny the petition on the grounds that we are not immediately ready to develop a Puget Sound TMDL, and adopting a wasteload allocation into a rule is not necessary to implement a TMDL.
We agree with the petitioner that Puget Sound is impaired by nutrient pollution and that a TMDL may be necessary to address this impairment. However, we do not agree with NWEA's statement that we have all the data and analysis necessary to immediately and effectively develop a TMDL for nutrients in a system as complex and vast as Puget Sound. A TMDL can be a useful tool for water quality improvement, but it isn’t the only tool in our toolbox.

Using sound science to shape our actions

We began the technical work to understand the dissolved oxygen issue in South and Central Puget Sound back in 2008. That work included a water quality model for South and Central Puget Sound, however, scientists and decision-makers learned from that work that human impacts need to be evaluated on the larger scale of the Salish Sea.

This is when scientists expanded our scientific model to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Canadian waters to develop the Salish Sea Model. A circulation and water quality model of this size and complexity takes time to build correctly. It has been through extensive peer review by other scientists and engineers to make sure it gives us accurate results. We and Pacific Northwest National Labs have worked hard to build the technical tool to grapple with and understand the nutrient issue in Puget Sound.

Working to address the nutrient problem in Puget Sound

We finished several pieces of the Salish Sea Model in 2017. These pieces improve the model’s skill and predictive power. We also spent the year communicating what we know and understand about the nutrient problem from current data analysis using the Salish Sea model.

We have scoped the issues by talking with stakeholders, scientists, and the regulated community. We are looking at nutrient management examples from around the country, and have begun building a project implementation framework to reach our water quality goals and help Puget Sound.

Tackling nutrients in 2018

As we continue technical analyses in the coming year, we will begin developing a strategy that can be implemented to address nutrients in marine water quality.

Washington state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have invested nearly a decade of time and money developing the Salish Sea Model to give us the power to answer one big question:

What impacts are humans having on dissolved oxygen and water quality in the Salish Sea?

We are now ready to apply that model to figure out what actions are needed to reduce nutrients and improve Puget Sound water quality.

Denying the petition but still addressing the problem

While we are denying this petition to put wasteload allocations from a Puget Sound Nutrient TMDL into rule, we will continue to:

  • Use the Salish Sea model to determine where treatment technologies that remove nutrients will have the greatest impact on reducing nutrient inputs to Puget Sound.
  • Use the Salish Sea model to determine which nutrient reductions are necessary to avoid impaired water quality.
  • Evaluate where reducing nutrient inputs from the watersheds that contribute to Puget Sound are necessary.
  • Continue our work to reduce non-point sources of nutrient pollution.
  • Continue working with agricultural communities to reduce nutrient runoff from farms that can adversely impact shellfish harvest areas.

Earlier blogs:

Visit our website and join our email list to get up-to-date information on the nutrient problem in Puget Sound.

We want this to be a collaborative effort that brings all of the technical work that is happening on Puget Sound nutrients together. We need all hands on deck to find the best solutions for meeting water quality goals for Puget Sound.

Contact information

Dustin Bilhimer
Puget Sound Nutrient Source Reduction Project Manager