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Hood Canal's Purity in Peril From Suburbia

Hundreds of homes on septic systems have been built around the Washington fjord. Now the sewage is leaching into its calm waters.

June 19, 2005|Erin Van Bronkhorst | Associated Press Writer

BELFAIR, Wash. — Henry Minch tried to warn people about Hood Canal's future.

Ten years ago, the retired geologist told Mason County commissioners that allowing too many septic systems around the calm waters of the fjord would cause problems in the long run.

Yet new houses, remodeled homes and businesses kept sprouting on shores and hillsides as a vacation paradise -- separated from greater Seattle by Puget Sound and the Kitsap Peninsula. The settlement has morphed into a distant suburb over the last 30 years.

County commissioners allowed builders and landowners to develop the land without sewers. Now thousands of septic tank leaching fields sit feet away from the canal, its rich shellfish beds and its fish stocks.

Just as Minch expected, the canal's waters have low levels of dissolved oxygen, leading to greenish algae blooms, fish kills and state-ordered fishing closures.

The state's Puget Sound Action Team, a multiagency task force, blames septic systems for about 60% of the human contribution to the problem.

"You can use the word 'pristine' in the past tense," Minch said as he gazed out over the water from his home on the fjord's south shore, where cabins had turned into multistory homes that stood cheek-to-cheek along the shore.

Minch, 76, an engineering geologist who worked on wastewater treatment plants and collection systems in the metropolitan Seattle area, participated in the cleanup of Seattle's polluted Lake Washington in the 1960s.

He has slowed down some, but he can still calculate. He drew on the experience from his working years to prepare the report for Mason County.

Each human being produces 22 grams of nitrogen daily in waste. Most septic systems are not designed to remove significant amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous, so a large portion leaches into the ground, the groundwater and adjacent bodies of water.

In the report he wrote 10 years ago, Minch estimated that 4,500 homes in the lower Hood Canal watershed area would pour 153,000 pounds of nitrogen into the southern part of the fjord yearly. Many more homes have been added since.

Tides don't flush the 60-mile-long inland waterway very well, especially at the southern end, because of its narrow shape and a sill at the northern end.

Nitrogen fertilizes algae, causing it to grow. The algae dies off and the decomposing organic matter consumes so much oxygen that there isn't enough left for the fish.

Minch said the commissioners read his report but were reluctant to rein in development.

"Now with [fishing] closures and low oxygen, all of a sudden they see the dollar signs," Minch said. "We're losing the canal. It's going to cost money big-time to fix the problem."

County officials couldn't readily provide the number of homes constructed along the canal in recent years. But an estimated 5,000 to 7,500 new electric hookups -- nearly all of them homes -- were done between 1990 and 2004 in the lower Hood Canal watershed, said Terry Peterson, engineering manager of Mason County Public Utility District No. 3.

Then there's Belfair, an unincorporated town at the eastern tip of the canal. A visitor can find grocery stores, restaurants, a tire shop, library, variety store, Laundromat and school -- all on septic systems.

The roots of Mason County are rural. Christmas-tree farmers sit beside well-dressed real estate agents at county commission meetings.

Around here, a man's home is his castle, and that includes the septic tank. There's no county or state law requiring homeowners to allow septic inspectors access to their property.

In the 1990s, county commissioners started a clean-water district to reduce contamination that was forcing closures of commercial shellfish beds. But when inspectors visited homes to check septic tanks, between 500 and 600 people turned them away, said volunteer Harry Martin, then-chairman of the Lower Hood Canal Clean Water District.

Former Commissioner Bill Hunter remembers that some residents complained loudly about paying assessments to fund the clean-water effort.

Hunter, whose family had farmed the Skokomish Valley for more than a century, said all septic systems installed along the water met state standards at the time.

"As far as sewers, we tried and we weren't high enough priority for the state," Hunter said. In the early 1970s, he said, a system was planned along the south shore but couldn't get state funding.

Former Commissioner Wes Johnson, who served four years ending in December, argues that the state doesn't have enough data to prove that septic systems are the main problem. Sewers along the shorelines would cost an estimated $100 million, Johnson said, too much for a limited population to shoulder.

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