How you can help save the Salish Sea

You can start by falling in love with Puget Sound all over again.

By Tom Burke

It’s called the Salish Sea. It stretches from Tumwater, (site of the first American settlement in 1845) north up through Canada, to Squirrel Cove, B.C. “Our” portion of the Sea, the Puget Sound Basin, has a watershed (drainage area) encompassing 13,700 square miles and more than 4.2 million people call it home.

The Sound is a deep, rich biological resource; an incredibly powerful economic engine; and an inspiration to soul and spirit.

It’s the third largest U.S. estuary — only Chesapeake Bay and San Francisco Bay are larger — and it’s not in good shape. Some even say it’s slowly, inexorably, and by many measures dying … and we’re the ones killing it.

“Not me,” says you. “Yes, you,” says the hydrologists, marine biologists, geologists, water quality scientists, ecosystem modelers, economists, urban planners, waterkeepers and volunteers — those incredibly dedicated, superbly educated, eminently practical men and women who have made the Puget Sound their life’s work.

Chris Wilke is one of those dedicated people. He’s the Puget Soundkeeper and his “job” is to cuddle, coddle and caress Puget Sound. He, his staff, and thousands of volunteers do it daily, spending hours upon hours on the Sound and its tributaries looking for problems, working towards solutions, and cleaning up our mess.

So, you ask, what are the biggest threats to the Sound’s water quality? Water quality is to the Sound what blood chemistry is to the human body. A body filled with bad blood can’t sustain human life. A Sound with bad water — too many nutrients, toxins, garbage — can’t sustain marine life.

It could simply be that so many people, each doing a little to degrade water quality and destroy habitat, is the problem. But population and growth is a trend that isn’t changing, so ways around that reality need to be found.

Wilke explains five significant threats to the Sound’s water quality: stormwater and wastewater; toxins (oxycodone is showing up in Puget Sound fish!); agricultural pollution; pollution from recreational and commercial vessels; marine debris and plastics; and, heaven forbid a major oil spill.

And he also lays out things people (you!) can do to help preserve the Sound. And note, just because you don’t own shoreline doesn’t mean you don’t have an impact on the Sound. If you live in Bothell, Snohomish, Everett, Arlington, Goldbar or Darrington, you live “on” the Sound by way of your local river or stream. It all flows downhill.

So where to begin?

Wilke says first, fall in love — with the Sound — all over again. Get out on it. Go watch some whales or some eagles. Sit on the beach at Mulkiteo and savor a sunset or take a ferry to Clinton. Fish. Swim. Kayak. Canoe. Reacquaint yourself with the grandeur and beauty of the Sound, or your local river or stream, ‘cause unless you value something you won’t work to save it.

Next: Get informed. Learn about the Sound. Learn about your local rivers and streams and how they connect. Find out what’s killing the Sound and your involvement. And Wilke offers an intriguing proposal: just as all Washington state high school seniors are required to take a course in “government” so they can be better American citizens; they should also be required to take a course in “watershed,” so they can be better citizens of the Sound.

Then, do stuff. Change some old bad habits (like overfertilizing lawns and gardens) and learn some new good habits (like planting native vegetation or redirecting downspouts to lawns or gardens instead of storm drains.)

Finally, get involved. Contact your federal and state legislators, county council person, mayor, or alderman. Say, “I care about the Sound and you should too.”

Better yet, join a group of like-minded folks. The Puget Soundkeeper organization ( is a good place to start and/or volunteer. So is the Washington Environmental Council ( To keep current with the science, subscribe to the UW’s Puget Sound Institute’s Bay Currents ( It’s free, written for the layman — and well written at that.

Wilke’s macro-assessment of the state of the Sound is positive, “It’s deteriorating, but we still have a lot to protect.” Realistically, however, he continued, “But we’re still hurting Puget Sound faster than it’s recovering. We have a lot of success to report (the Sound became a marine “No Discharge Zone” on May 10) but we need to do better than just stay at the status quo.”

Which your concerned columnist here fears could mean, “If we don’t do more we’ll have to rename it the Dead Sea some day.”

Note to Readers: I spent the best 15 years of my career helping restore the Chesapeake Bay. It was my job and my passion. Expect to see a bunch more about “Saving the Sound” in future columns.

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