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Originally published Tuesday, September 17, 2013 at 4:53 PM

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Guest: We must keep boat sewage out of Puget Sound

Marine vessels are still allowed to empty their sewage tanks directly into this cherished and invaluable ecosystem. This environmentally unsound and fiscally irresponsible practice must end, writes guest columnist Peter Goldmark.

Special to The Times

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PUGET Sound is the heart of Washington. It is the center of a vast ecosystem that encompasses the Salish Sea and its shorelines, penetrating deep inland through 10,000 rivers and streams that thread through the Olympic and Cascade watersheds.

It would probably surprise most Washingtonians that while government agencies and nonprofits are investing enormous resources to clean up Puget Sound, marine vessels are still allowed to empty their sewage tanks directly into this cherished and invaluable ecosystem.

This environmentally unsound and fiscally irresponsible practice must end. That’s why I am calling on the Washington State Department of Ecology to petition the federal Environmental Protection Agency to designate Puget Sound a No-Discharge Zone, which will legally prohibit the dumping of all boat sewage into the Sound.

The sparkling waters of the Sound carry $80 billion in trade annually and sustain a fish and shellfish harvest worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Washington’s economy. Its scenic majesty brings people from around the world to vacation, recreate and establish new lives within view of its shores.

Though federal, tribal, state and local governments have appropriated over $1 billion for Puget Sound restoration and conservation projects since 2007, indications are that water quality and habitat health are still suffering.

Nitrate levels in the Sound have increased significantly over the past decade, leading to larger algae blooms, declining dissolved oxygen levels and perhaps more frequent commercial shellfish-bed closures. Acidity levels and water temperatures continue to rise. Many fish and wildlife populations, already depressed to a fraction of their historic norms, are showing little sign of rebounding.

Declaring Puget Sound a No-Discharge Zone is one of the tough decisions that we will have to make if we are serious about restoring a clean and healthy Puget Sound.

Under current law, recreational vessels can legally dump untreated sewage three miles from shore and minimally treated sewage anywhere in the Sound — over shellfish beds, salmon runs and prime hunting territory for orcas and bald eagles.

Large cruise ships and commercial vessels can discharge huge volumes of concentrated sewage into the Sound if they utilize more advanced marine-sanitation devices.

On an average summer weekend, as many as 58,000 boaters recreate on Puget Sound. They can cleanly dispose of their waste by using one of the 115 pump-out facilities, including nine mobile boat units, spread across the Sound. An estimated 3.5 million gallons of sewage were pumped from boats on Puget Sound in 2011 in this manner.

The majority of recreational boaters are responsible and vigilant stewards of the Sound. Many have invested their hard-earned money in equipment to treat their vessels’ sewage for the instances when they expel it into the aquatic environment.

Despite these good intentions, many approved marine-sanitation devices have been shown to be unreliable and ineffective, producing discharge with levels of fecal bacteria and other pollutants many times greater than even the most lenient Washington water quality standards.

That is unacceptable. We should no longer give vessel owners and operators the option of dumping treated or untreated waste into a fragile ecosystem that is already struggling for survival.

Declaring Puget Sound a No-Discharge Zone will reinforce the message being sent in Congress by U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer and Denny Heck, both D-Wash., who recently founded the Congressional Puget Sound Recovery Caucus to make the case that the restoration of America’s second largest estuary is an issue of national significance.

More than 90 percent of respondents in a 2012 poll stated that cleaning up and protecting waters in and around Puget Sound is an urgent concern.

It is the will of the people of our state, and in the interests of our nation, that we take the next step toward a thriving Puget Sound by designating it as a No-Discharge Zone.

Peter Goldmark is the Commissioner of Public Lands, which administers the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. He has a Ph.D. in molecular biology.

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