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Circulation May be Key to Improving Puget Sound Water Quality

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- D. Petrich

Puget Sound was randomly created by the forces of nature. For eons, life adapted and thrived in the unique topography of the region--a delicate balance between the rain-wash off the surrounding mountain ranges and nutrient rich salt water delivered from the Pacific Ocean.

In the last 100 years, this fragile environment has been severely disrupted by toxic industrial waste, bacteria laden sewage, and synthetic contaminants form thousands of miles of roadways ringing the shorelines--all contributing factors in declining fish stocks and inedible shellfish. The fragility of the Puget Sound lies in the backwaters south of the Narrows known as the South Sound, as well as in the southern reaches of Hood Canal. In these shallow bays, and deep isolated channels, water gets trapped by the oscillating tides. While the currents run fast in some areas, the same water just moves back and forth. The presence of pollutants has tipped the scale and has created a situation in which the stagnated water no longer can hold enough oxygen to support indigenous marine life.

It could be argued that it is here at the south end of the Kitsap Peninsula where Mother Nature could have done better--at least in anticipation of the shortsighted humans that would eventually inhabit the area. If it wasn't for a narrow strip of land between Hood Canal and South Puget Sound, Kitsap Peninsula would be an island--contemplating the idea that the wind driven snows which formed the 3,000 foot thick glaciers carving much of the South Sound could have blown a bit differently then they did. We could have easily been referring to Kitsap Island today. In this alternative configuration of the Western Washington Geography, perhaps a more durable marine environment would have evolved. One similar to the neighboring islands to the north where currents freely swirl in and out to cleanse, dilute and replenish. In the grand scheme of things, such little nuances in topography are merely an earthquake or Ice Age away from being reshuffled. It's merely happenstance that the Puget Sound emerged from the last covering of glacial ice in its present form.

The health of the Puget Sound is rapidly failing. Many experts believe small initiatives to reduce pollutants only serve as a political pacifier at this point. It may be time to think in drastic measures if some resemblance of the past is to be retained as the area swells in population. One drastic solution is to accomplish what Mother Nature failed to do. That is, to connect Hood Canal and South Puget Sound so that water can circulate around Kitsap Peninsula with the changing tides; much the same way Deception Pass refreshes the North Sound.

The possibility of cutting a two mile long canal between Belfair at the Southern tip of Hood Canal and the town of Allyn on Case Inlet has yet to be discussed by state officials. A project perhaps on the scale of the Sea-Tac 1.2 billion dollar Third Runway project would leave a navigable channel through the 300' high ridge separating the two bodies of water. Alternatively, constructing a multitude of large overland tidal siphon tubes to transfer water between South Puget Sound and Hood Canal could be more cost effective. In theory, the tidal differences between these two points could possibly allow enough improved circulation to regenerate the oxygen-starved regions of Hood Canal and South Puget Sound--there is about a two to three foot differential between these two bodies of water at high tide.

While the direction of circulation can be mechanically controlled by check valves or one-way flow gates if necessary, the natural tidal pattern between South Puget Sound and Hood Canal may produce a prevailing north-bound current flow most of the time. Such a system could help flush pollutants and stagnant water into the more active tidal currents of the Straits of Juan De Fuca and Pacific Ocean.

Additionally, the movement of water through the suggested manmade canal or tidal siphon tubes could provide hydroelectric energy to help offset the costs of such a project. Several public utility districts in the Puget Sound area are currently studying in-stream tidal energy systems for generating green hydroelectric power. These include Snohomish PUD who is looking at tidal current generators in Deception Pass and other areas of the north Sound, and Tacoma City Light is now evaluating placement of undersea fan generators in the Tacoma Narrows. So far, there has been no announced studies proposing the investigation for utilizing the differential effect of the tides in between Hood Canal and South Puget Sound to generate power.

Diagram illustrating an overland siphon driven by the tide differential between Case Inlet and lower Hood Canal. The water column is heavier on the low-water side and thereby perpetually pulling water from the high-water side of the siphon to create a natural gravity-driven flow.

Public support for a Kitsap Canal project could end up being garnished form the combined interests of conservationists and tidal energy proponents. Certainly, it would change the dynamic of these sensitive marine environments. And there would be many debates as to the long-term effect of changing the current patterns in the South Sound and Hood Canal. However, time will tell to see if politicians and state officials will wake up and start considering drastic measures to save Puget Sound.