Statutory Goal: Fresh and marine waters and sediments of a sufficient quality to support water that is safe for drinking, swimming, and other human uses and enjoyment, and that are not harmful to the native marine mammals, fish, birds, and shellfish in the region.

Freshwater Quality
Freshwater impairments
Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity
Water Quality Index
Marine Sediment Quality
Chemicals exceeding Sediment Quality Standards
Sediment Quality Triad Index
Sediment Chemistry Index
Marine Water Quality
Marine Water Condition Index
Dissolved oxygen in marine waters
Toxics in Fish
Contaminants in adult Chinook salmon
Contaminants in English sole
Contaminants in juvenile Chinook salmon
Contaminants in Pacific herring

One indicator of the Healthy Water Quality goal met the target

While only one of the 11 indicators with targets in the Healthy Water Quality goal met its 2020 target, more improved. The Sediment Chemistry Index indicator is the only indicator that was within reach of its 2020 target. Exposure to chemicals in sediment has generally been minimal throughout the past 20 years and has remained in good condition. However, improvements in Elliott and Commencement Bays are particularly noteworthy, especially given that they are situated in more urbanized and industrial landscapes.

Other signals for marine and freshwater water quality did improve in some places or at least stayed the same, namely the Water Quality Index of freshwater, the Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity, and indicators of contaminants in different fish species in different habitats. The Marine Water Condition Index is the only indicator that has steadily declined over the past few decades.

  • Aspects of freshwater quality such as oxygen and temperature generally have stayed about the same over the past 20 years for a given river – if conditions were good, they stayed good, and if they were bad, they stayed bad. Water quality issues are localized, and the condition of some streams, when measured in terms of insect life using the Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity, have degraded over time. Some streams where the condition was categorized as excellent dropped to a more degraded “good” category. BIBI scores are correlated with land use conversion and urbanization, with poorer conditions in watersheds with greater urban development. Stormwater runoff from urban and urbanizing areas causes the majority of habitat and water quality degradation in small streams.
  • In 2019, Puget Sound waters were warmer and saltier than average – although not as warm as during the “blob” of warm water from the Northeast Pacific Ocean (2014-2015). Abnormally warm and salty waters impact the Puget Sound food web; however, predicting effects on species is difficult. Warmer waters can be inhospitable to some animals (like salmon) but welcoming to other animals (like anchovy). And impacts can be complicated: warmer waters may support more abundant zooplankton populations or different types of zooplankton, which can alter food availability for fishes like Chinook salmon and Pacific herring.
  • Marine water quality generally continues to decline as shown by Marine Water Condition Index (MWCI) scores and other measures such as oxygen, temperature, pH, and nutrient balances documented in the Marine Waters 2019 Overview. Declines were noteworthy in Bellingham Bay, Whidbey Basin, and further north in the Georgia Basin, Canada. Dissolved oxygen levels in many parts of Puget Sound were lower on average in 2019 compared to the baseline (1999–2008) conditions, continuing a six-year declining oxygen trend. Ocean acidification is a continuing problem, particularly in Hood Canal and on the outer coast of Washington, where carbon dioxide concentrations are higher than global averages.
  • While exposure to chemicals in sediments may generally have been minimal throughout Puget Sound, the small animals that live in the sediment have nonetheless been affected, though perhaps by other factors. The health of benthic communities is especially degraded in areas with poor circulation and slow water exchange and that are high in organic matter and low in oxygen.
  • Aquatic animals in Puget Sound are exposed to complex mixtures of thousands of chemicals that may have cumulative impacts on their health and survival and limit the amount of seafood we can safely eat. The contaminants in Pacific herring and adult salmon indicators failed to meet their recovery targets because PCBs exceed their health effects thresholds. However, PBDEs, a type of flame retardant, declined.
  • Thousands of chemicals, known as contaminants of emerging concern, might harm Puget Sound aquatic species but are less well known. Governments do not regulate their levels.
  • Other indicators dependent on water quality but that also affect human health point to areas where the resource is unfit for human use or pose a health risk to humans. Such indicators include nitrates in ground water (a source for drinking), water quality at swimming beaches, and shellfish growing areas.
  • For more details about ecosystem conditions relating to this goal, please see our Story Map on Puget Sound Info.

Climate change poses a risk to healthy water quality

Climate change poses a high risk to most Vital Signs related to Healthy Water Quality. This includes Freshwater Quality, Marine Water Quality, and Marine Sediment Quality. Toxics in Fish is at moderate risk (Siemann and Binder 2017).

  • heavier rain events;
  • higher peak flows;
  • lower summer flows; and
  • warming streams.
  • ocean warming;
  • ocean acidification; and
  • heavier rain events.
  • heavier rain events;
  • coastal erosion and flooding; and
  • ocean warming.
  • heavier rain events;
  • higher peak flows; and
  • increasing water temperatures (Mauger and Vogel 2020).

Signals from the 2020 State of Our Watersheds Report

Water Quality: In 2014 only 7% of the Puget Sound Region’s stream miles were assessed for water quality, a total of ~3,867 miles. Of the assessed streams, 87% were determined to be impaired for one or more parameters and are listed in WA Ecology’s 305b report to EPA. Of the 305b listed impaired streams, 56% are identified as salmonid bearing.

PSEMP Puget Sound Marine Waters Overview

Every year, the PSEMP Marine Waters Work Group produces the Marine Waters Overview Report. The project includes an annual workshop to share observations about changing climatic conditions, water quality, and condition of the lower trophic levels of the food web over the course of the previous year. Over the last 10 years, the Marine Waters Overview has had contributions from over 70 experts at over 30 organizations, representing a wide range of monitoring programs across the region. The information gathered in the report is relevant to many of the Puget Sound Vital Signs.

Notable observations for 2019 included:

Overall, Puget Sound waters have been warmer and saltier over the past few years – although not as warm as during the “blob” marine heatwave of 2014-2016.

Long-lasting hypoxia (i.e. critically low oxygen concentrations) continues to be observed in Southern Hood Canal, though no fish kills were observed.

Toxic algal blooms and other water-borne and bacterial pathogens continued to be present in Puget Sound waters but were not any more problematic than they were in previous years.

Ocean acidification continues to be a concern for Puget Sound waters, especially as it relates to shellfish and other calcifying organisms. The highest values were recorded in deep waters of Whidbey Basin and Hood Canal, and at levels known to be stressful to shell-building organisms.

Marine plastics continue to be present in samples, waters, and sediments across Puget Sound and have been ubiquitous in sampling collections over the past five years.

Red flags raised by the PSEMP Toxics Work Group

PCBs remain a problem because they are harming the health of aquatic life and people throughout Puget Sound, despite past and ongoing work to reduce PCB pollution throughout the region.

Coho salmon die when exposed to 6PPD-quinone, a tire-related contaminant in runoff from roads, particularly in streams in and around cities. This condition is known as urban runoff mortality syndrome.

More details on the Toxics in Fish Vital Sign webpage.