State unveils ideas on tackling ocean acidification

Gov. Gregoire wants to move forward with a first-in-the-nation effort. But the incoming governor and the next Legislature will have a lot to say on how to tackle the problem.
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A large oyster at Dabob Bay.

Gov. Gregoire wants to move forward with a first-in-the-nation effort. But the incoming governor and the next Legislature will have a lot to say on how to tackle the problem.

You can probably expect Washington to increase efforts to stop acidic nutrients from flowing into Puget Sound. Ditto with carbon emissions escaping into the state's air.

At the same time, Gov. Chris Gregoire wants to set up a University of Washington center to coordinate scientific efforts to combat the increasing acidity of Washington's salt waters. And she wants some money to immediately help forecast Puget Sound's acidity to forecast that best shellfish harvesting times.

Gregorire has signed an order directing state officials to work on addressing ocean acidification. Governor-elect Jay inslee, who assumes office in January,  appears receptive to to these proposals, which were unveiled Tuesday in Seattle by a Gregoire-appointed panel of scientists, policy makers and business interests.

The question is whether most of the immediate and long-range proposals to deal with ocean acidification will make it through the state Legislature and Congress. 

"Some people (in Congress) are in denial, saying that none of this is going on. ... That is one of our problems in moving this thing forward," said panelist and retiring U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.

Panel co-chairman William Ruckelshaus said: "Ocean acidification affects our economy, our environment and possible every living thing we share space with. ... We cannot sit idly by while this happens." (Disclosure: Ruckelshaus is on Crosscut's board of directors.)

The other co-chairman, Jay Manning, said: "It is a global problem. It is not a problem that Washington can solve by itself.".

Washington is the first state to tackle ocean acidification. 

Thanks to rising acidity levels in Northwest waters, tiny oyster shells in Washington's Dabob and Willipa bays and in Oregon's Netarts Bay are crumbling faster than they can grow back; theproblem has cut sharply into this year's oyster harvests. Billions of oyster larvae have died. Scientists have pinpointed a drop in the water's pH as the cause. The trend has two primary contributing factors: additional carbon dioxide in the air and nitrogen-laden nutrients that seep from cities, septic tanks and agriculture into the ocean.

PH measures the acidity or alkalinity of a fluid on a 14-point scale — the lower the number, the more acidic the liquid. Orange juice's pH is 3. Distilled water is considered "neutral" at 7 and sea water normally has a pH of 8.1 to 8.2, well within the narrow pH spectrum that allows shellfish to survive. At 100 feet deep, Dabob Bay water has sometimes been measured at a pH of 7.5.  Puget Sound water is often more acidic than the Pacific's waters, said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who was also at Tuesday's unveiling.

Recent studies have shown scientists that not only is the acidification of ocean water increasing, but that that increase is accelerating as global warming gases build up in the atmosphere. Near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution — 250 years ago — the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content has been calculated to have been roughly 280 parts per million. Today, the density of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at about 390 ppm. The increase in carbon dioxide density in the air — and in the sea — is expected to significantly accelerate this century.

The problem has an economic component in that the state's shellfish industry is one of the biggest in the world, bringing in about $270 million annually and employing roughly 3,200 people.

"It is a wake-up call, not just to Washingtonians, but a wake-up call to Americans. ... It's clear we need additional targeted science," Gregoire said. 

When Gregoire unveils her proposed 2013-2015 budget in December, it will include a $3.3 million appropriation to deacidification efforts from existing taxes on hazardous substance and leases on state-owned aquatic areas, including existing fees on the sale of geoducks. The money is supposed to go the proposed University of Washington Center — to be set up by July 2013 — to coordinate scientific research in ocean acidification. The money is also to help shellfish hatcheries make short-term forecasts and to adapt to the fluctuating acidity of the water.

"Is it enough? That depends on who you ask. It's all we got," Gregoire said.

Gregoire said Inslee has been briefed about her panel's recommendations and is receptive to them. Inslee spokesman Sterling Clifford stopped short of saying that the governor-elect would adopt all of the panel's recommendation's. However, he said Inslee is supportive of the recommendations as a whole and has a strong general interest in climate change issues. 

In October, panelist state Sen Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, and chairman of the Senate's natural resources committee, said he plans to introduce ocean deacidification legislation for the upcoming session. He was unavailable for comment Tuesday on details of that proposed legislation. 

The panel's recommendations include:

  • Studying the relationships between the state's carbon emissions and Puget Sound's acidity. The report also recommended doing similar studies on nutrients from various uses, such as fertilizers and their effects on Puget Sound's water. Relationships between acidity and shellfish health also need expanded study. These will be expensive, and should be tackled soon, with expectations that the studies will take years.
  • Introducing legislation soon on nutrient limits for rural sewage going into or toward Puget Sound or the Pacific Ocean.
  • Beginning long-range studies on whether urban sewage plants and other specific nutrient-waste sources should be modified to decrease the amounts of nutrients leaving them.
  • Expanding shellfish production, with the state expecting to soon announce the opening of new harvest areas. Beyond those immediate new areas, finding additional low-acid waters could be long and expensive.
  • Setting up more monitoring instruments in the near future. Also, specific pH management thresholds need to be set. 
  • Stressing outreach and education to Washingtonians, Washington, D.C., and the appropriate global interests.
  • Putting a specific person in charge all the efforts, who reports directly to the governor. 

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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8