Restoring a Critical Urban Watershed

A Resource at Risk

View across Hylebos Waterway from the restored Squally Beach site.

The view across Hylebos Waterway from the restored Squally Beach site.

High resolution (Credit:NOAA)

Each year, oil and toxic chemicals from ships, pipelines, and hazardous waste sites contaminate our nation’s coastal waters. These pollutants harm marine resources and degrade the quality of life for coastal communities. Industries, which are one source of these pollutants, are typically located along waterfronts to ease the transport of goods. Sometimes, this industrial development contaminates coastal areas, although the effects are not always obvious. Pollutants such as toxic metals, pesticides, and other harmful substances can persist in the environment, posing threats to fish, wildlife, and people for many years.

Working Together to Restore Injured Resources

After an oil spill or hazardous substance release, government agencies respond by cleaning up and reducing long-term risks to humans and the environment. But these efforts may not fully restore injured natural resources.

Volunteers participate by planting for the Lower Hylebos Marsh Restoration Project; a 15-acre marsh designed to provide habitat for juvenile fish.

Volunteers participate by planting for the Lower Hylebos Marsh Restoration Project; a 15-acre marsh designed to provide habitat for juvenile fish.

High resolution (Credit:NOAA)

That’s where NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) steps in. This group, comprised of the National Ocean Service’s Office of Response and Restoration, NOAA’s Fisheries’ Restoration Center, and NOAA’s General Counsel for Natural Resources, studies the extent of resource injuries, the best methods for restoring those resources, and the type and amount of restoration required.  

The team uses innovative partnerships with industry, government, and other stakeholders to reverse the effects of coastal contamination while ensuring that the environ­ment is protected and restored. To date, DARRP has successfully protected natural resources at more than 500 waste sites and generated more than $440 million from responsible parties to protect or restore thousands of acres of habitat and return valuable resources and services to the public. 

The Commencement Bay Project

The harbor for Tacoma, Wash., and its eight waterways are home to dozens of commercial and industrial operations, including chemical manufacturing companies, oil refineries, and food processing plants. Commencement Bay also is home to diverse marine species, including Chinook, coho, and churn salmon; steelhead trout; flatfish; and numerous bird species. 

Commencement Bay area map.

Commencement Bay area.

High resolution (Credit:NOAA)

Since the 1920s, hazardous substances released through storm drains from industries along the bay contaminated its waterways, sediments, and organisms. In 1991, NOAA’s DARRP began working with multiple state, federal, and tribal partners to develop a plan to restore injured resources. DARRP studied the effects of hazardous substances on natural resources, developed a model to allocate liability, entered into settlement agreements with willing parties, and planned and carried out projects to restore injured resources such as wetlands and salmon habitat.

Overall, DARRP has reached settlement with over 50 parties in the Commencement Bay  area and restoration has been completed or is underway for more than 200 acres of previously impaired habitat. These settlements will be used to further DARRP’s long-term strategic vision for watershed restoration in Puget Sound.

“These restored habitats provide valuable feeding, resting, and acclimating areas for injured natural resources in this highly-developed urban area. It is very gratifying to see functioning restoration projects being used by fish and wildlife,” according to Jennifer Steger of NOAA’s Restoration Center.

Future plans include building a wetland restoration project on West Hylebos Creek, which will enhance and restore salmon spawning and rearing habitat, restore riparian vegetation, and provide habitat for birds that use Commencement Bay. As restoration is underway in certain parts of the Commencement Bay watershed, assessment of damages continues in other areas. Completing this work will be an ongoing goal of DARRP in the years to come.

Learn more about the various settlements and restoration projects that have occurred in Commencement Bay online. NOAA logo.