polluted run off

The Truth About Puget Sound

Written by Stephanie Williams, Program Coordinator

The Pacific Northwest is known for its good looking bodies… of water, that is.

If people don’t know much about Puget Sound, they tend to at least know that this region has a wealth of gorgeous views of blue lakes, tree-lined rivers, waterfalls, and meandering creeks, not to mention the Sound itself. While this is something to boast about, it is also quite deceptive. These breath-taking views are hiding a serious problem that can only be seen with an up-close look. The water in Puget Sound looks healthy and is often described as pristine, but the truth is that it is in very bad shape.

What isn’t easily visible in the picturesque Elliot Bay, Skagit River, or Lake Washington is polluted run-off from our urban and suburban areas. While it may not be a floating plastic bag or a six-pack ring, the poster children of aquatic litter, polluted run-off is having a severe impact on salmon, marine mammals, and the entire ecosystem (humans included). It is the number one threat to water quality in Puget Sound.

But what is polluted run-off? What is this ghostly and invisible thing?

Polluted run-off, which is also referred to as “stormwater,” is rain water that rushes over pervious surfaces, such as buildings, roads, and sidewalks collecting dangerous oil, bacteria, chemicals and other pollutants along the way. Unlike sewage, which passes through treatment facilities, polluted run-off ends up in the nearest body of water dirty and untreated.

Imagine what your city or town looked like before humans built there. It was most likely a rich forest, lush with vegetation and healthy soils. Back then, the rain would catch on trees and be absorbed into the forest soils, which both slowed and cleaned the water as it made its way toward Puget Sound. Over time people greatly changed the landscape by erecting tall buildings, houses, and roads, all with hard surfaces that left nowhere for the rain water to go. To avoid flooding, storm drains were built to pipe the rain water away from the city to streams, lakes and the Sound. Water that used to soak into soils and groundwater, supporting a healthy ecosystem, now runs off and causes more frequent erosion and flooding in addition to its devastating impact on salmon and other species.

The problem of polluted run-off is not as simple as sea turtle caught in a six-pack ring. It is very complex and its inconspicuous nature only makes it more difficult to bring to people’s attention. Check out cityhabitats.org and washingtonnature.org/cities to see what The Nature Conservancy and its partners are doing to raise awareness of polluted run-off and affect change for salmon and for ourselves.