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Guest Editorial: Why is Ocean Science Missing in the SJC’s BAS?

Posted 8/12/2013

as printed in The Trojan Heron

San Juan Island, WA – My wife and I came to San Juan Island in 2009 to enjoy the wonderful ambiance of these Islands.   Like many friends and neighbors, we are environmentally oriented–I having retired from 40 years of ocean technology work, and she a long career in public relations.   We both are alarmed by San Juan County’s recent CAO [Critical Areas Ordinance] developments and public disclosures–her from a public information perspective, and I from an ocean sciences point of view. 

We are not directly affected, but I want to speak out as a county taxpayer and home owner in the cause of clarity and transparency.  Our fellow taxpayers and residents need the real facts to better judge the truth and value of this “environmentally necessitated” county initiative against the cost and economic risk to all our communities and their residents. 

Here’s the main issue:   the current CAO is based on facts that do not apply to the San Juan Islands and missing the facts that do.  My comments are directed toward the centerpiece of the CAO plan–Imposing deep setbacks and buffer zones to protect and restore our marine environment.

There’s a big problem with the County’s approach.   The County’s agencies have developed a long list of Puget Watershed and related reports, called “Best Available Science (BAS).”   This BAS  forms their justification for the CAO, and the SMP  to follow.   According to the State these ordinances must be based on some definition of best available science.

With my long association with ocean institutes, including the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA, I tried to determine the basis of the “ocean truth” in this BAS.  I was appalled to find that, despite years of Salish Sea studies, no physical oceanographic studies describing our local marine waters exist in this BAS.  

Without an ocean-reality baseline, how can this county legitimately proceed with a marine environmental remediation plan?  And, how costly will this plan be to enforce if their “science” is missing essential information?

I found that, while unacknowledged in the BAS, the body of ocean literature on local waters is extensive, and represents 50 years of model development and measurements by leading institutes.   The circulation models we now have available are mature, detailed, and tested physical science.  The findings contained in this literature led me to clear conclusions that fundamentally counter SJC’s rationale for shoreline buffer actions:

1.            The San Juan Islands waters are not part of the Puget Sound at all – They are part of the Southern Straits of Georgia, almost 10 times larger in water volume, and in river outflows.  We may be politically connected to the Puget, but our local marine waters are Canadian, and incidentally contain the effluent of 80% of the economic output of BC.

2.            Mostly blocked from northerly exit, the massive outflows from BC’s Fraser and nearby rivers create a persistent southerly flow of their waters through our islands out into the Straits of Juan de Fuca.  These river flows exceed 100 cubic kilometers of river water annually–about ten times that of all Puget rivers.

3.            Because of seabed and tidal flow features just to the south of us, these northern waters don’t mix much with Puget waters during tidal cycles. This means there is little mixing of our Islands’ and Puget waters by our strong tidal cycles, further isolating us.  These tides also create massive upwelling of clean Pacific waters along our shorelines from the bottom counter-current, and constantly bring fresh ocean waters to our shorelines.  Our Islands’ shorelines have the best flushed marine waters of any coastline in the lower US, and no local marine water quality measurements can legitimately separate the origins of local and Canadian runoff.

The ocean-truth for our Islands is that we are immersed in a huge BC system that mixes massive river outflows from the Fraser basin with Pacific Ocean waters.   BC governments have been addressing water quality issues for decades and are making progress—but, we are only a small part of their very large system.  We San Juan Islanders will be far better served by focusing on the few local area problems that we have and that we can do something about, rather than by incorrectly pursuing environmental actions that, to no avail impose laws based on incomplete information. 

It is time for the County of San Juan to step back and get the Ocean reality for our Islands right–before proceeding further with these CAO and SMP initiatives.

David Hyde, PhD 

[Note:  David Hyde, PhD, has a professional background in ocean sciences from his association with the University of California, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and other institutes.  The information and opinions in this editorial are his own independent assessments of literature that is available for everyone to assess.  He has recently collaborated with Ed Kilduff, a Lopez Island hydrogeologist, to create a presentation entitled “San Juan Archipelago Water Quality & CAO.”   Mr. Hyde has given permission for CSA to publish his editorial opinion.]

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref.]

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