South Puget Sound GRP

Table of Contents


Site Description

The South Puget Sound is comprised of numerous inlets and bays extending from Colvos Passage to Totten Inlet. The South Puget Sound area includes Case, Budd, Eld, Carr, Hammersley, Henderson Inlets, and several other small area inlets. Oakland Bay, Pickering Passage, Peale Passage, Dana Passage, Drayton Passage, Balch passage, Nisqually Reach and North Bay are also covered.  In addition, there are numerous islands including McNeil, Anderson, Fox, Harstine, and Squaxin Islands. The plan area is located within Washington’s Water Resources Inventory Areas Puyallup-White (WRIA 10), Nisqually (WRIA 11), Chambers-Clover (WRIA 12), Deschutes (WRIA 13), Kennedy-Goldsborough (WRIA 14), Kitsap (WRIA 15), Skokomish-Dosewallips (WRIA 16) (WA Dept. of Ecology).   The boundary encompasses 435 miles of coastline. Abundant lakes and rivers fall within the SPS GRP boundary. The only major river that drains into this area of the Puget Sound is the Nisqually River.

Physical Features

The geology of Washington’s coast and Puget Sound is complex and beautiful. The majority of the state’s population lives and works in the Puget Sound. 20,000 years ago Puget Sound was under a mile of ice. Glaciers covered everything in between the Olympics and the Cascade mountains and spread as far south as Olympia (DNR Geology). Glaciers advanced from Canada and retreated four or more times. Over a few million years, Puget Sound was carved and scoured by glaciers. In the Cenozoic Era and Pleistocene Epoch (2.6 million – 11.7 years ago), the first of the two epochs of the Quaternary Period predominantly included erosion and deposition of fluvial sediments that consist today of mostly glacial deposits and volcanic rock including Alluvial, Fine-Grained, Course-Grained and a Basement Confining Unit of older and lower volcanic tertiary rock in the Puget lowland. (WOU Geology) Today, significant sediment accumulation is occurring in widely separated river valleys, lake basins, and the Puget Sound. (DNR Geology)

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Shoreline types include low-salinity lagoons, mud flats, open mixed coarse beaches, open rocky shores (estuarine), open sandy beaches (estuarine), protected rocky shores (marine), and saline lagoons (estuarine) (DNR Nearshore). The Puget Sound has a rich maritime history along with an expansive United States Navy presence. Maritime life and commerce in Puget Sound between 1850 and 1970 is an era that shaped the lives, cities and industries of the Pacific Northwest. (Puget Maritime Museum)

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Vertical mixing takes place throughout the Sound in constricted or shallow areas, such as the Tacoma Narrows. South Puget Sound is traditionally defined by the Tacoma Narrows and an entrance sill located just to the south of the Narrows. The sill is a shallow reach formed during the glacial epochs tens of thousands of years ago, with typical depths around 50 m, although there are deeper regions greater than 150 m.  The hydrology of the South Puget Sound is a complex system of straits and open water.  This is a two layer system of highly variable circulation patterns, where fresh less saline surface water flows seaward and more saline bottom water flows landward.  Unusually deep water and strong currents characterize these waters. This estuary also varies highly in temperature and salinity, with surface layers influenced by both meteorology and freshwater inputs.

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Portions of Water Resources Inventory Areas Puyallup-White (WRIA 10), Nisqually (WRIA 11), Chambers-Clover (WRIA 12), Deschutes (WRIA 13), Kennedy-Goldsborough (WRIA 14), Kitsap (WRIA 15), and Skokomish-Dosewallips (WRIA 16) fall within the geographic boundaries of this plan.

Puyallup-White (WRIA 10):  The Puyallup-White Watershed is located in western Washington. This watershed includes three major rivers, the Puyallup, White, and Carbon, all of which originate from glaciers on Mt. Rainier. The annual precipitation in the Puyallup-White Watershed ranges from 30 to 40 inches per year in the greater Tacoma area to over 120 inches in the Cascade Mountains. Only a fraction of this precipitation becomes available for human and economic uses. Most of the precipitation arrives during the winter months, when water demands are the lowest. During the summer, the snowpack is gone, there is little rain, and naturally low stream flows are dependent on late summer glacial melting and groundwater. This means that groundwater and surface water are least available when water demands are the highest.

Nisqually (WRIA 11): This watershed consists of the Nisqually River and numerous tributary creeks and streams. The lower Nisqually Watershed is one of the most intensely farmed basins in western Washington. The annual precipitation in the Nisqually Watershed ranges from 40 inches in the lower Nisqually Watershed to over 120 inches per year in the Cascade Mountains. Most of the precipitation arrives during the winter months when water demands are the lowest. During the summer, the snowpack is gone, there is little rain, and naturally low stream flows are dependent on groundwater inflow. At the same time the demand for water for human uses, including irrigation, are at the yearly maximum. This means that groundwater and surface water are least available when water demands are the highest.

Chambers-Clover (WRIA 12): Water Resource Inventory Area (WRIA) 12 consists of Chambers, Clover, and Spanaway Creeks and numerous tributary creeks and streams. This watershed is one of the most intensely populated basins in western Washington. Annual precipitation in the Chambers-Clover Watershed ranges from 40 to 60 inches per year. Most of this precipitation arrives during the winter months when overall water demands are the lowest. During the summer, there is little rain, and naturally low stream flows are dependent on groundwater inflow. At the same time the demand for water for human uses, including irrigation are at the yearly maximum. This means that groundwater and surface water are least available when water demands are the highest.

Deschutes (WRIA 13): The Deschutes Watershed consists of the Deschutes River and numerous tributary creeks and streams. This watershed is one of the most intensely farmed basins in western Washington, and the annual precipitation ranges from 40 inches to over 80 inches per year. Most of the precipitation arrives during the winter months when overall water demands are the lowest. During the summer, the snowpack is gone, there is little rain, and naturally low stream flows are dependent on groundwater inflow. At the same time the demand for water for human uses, including irrigation, are at the yearly maximum. This means that groundwater and surface water are least available when water demands are the highest. There has also been a significant population increase in WRIA 13 over the past 20 years.

Kennedy-Goldsborough (WRIA 14): The Kennedy-Goldsborough Watershed consists of the Kennedy, Skookum, Mill/Gosnell, Goldsborough, Johns Creeks and other streams. Annual precipitation in the Kennedy-Goldsborough Watershed ranges from 40 to 80 inches per year. Most of this precipitation arrives during the winter months when water demands are the lowest. During the summer there is little rain, and naturally low stream flows are dependent on groundwater inflow.

Kitsap (WRIA 15): The Kitsap Watershed is situated in southern Puget Sound and comprises all of Kitsap county plus the northeastern part of Mason and the northwestern part of Pierce counties. Comprised mostly of rural development, the city also includes Bremerton and its suburbs. This watershed lacks any major rivers but includes numerous smaller streams. Average precipitation is 30-70 inches per year. Most of this precipitation arrives during the winter months when water demands are the lowest, and only a fraction becomes available for human and economic uses. During the summer, there is little rain, so low stream flows are dependent on groundwater inflow. This means that groundwater and surface water are least available when water demands are the highest.

Much of the water in the Kitsap Watershed is already legally spoken for (“appropriated”).  Increasing demands for water from ongoing population growth, diminishing surface water supplies, declining groundwater levels in some areas, and the impacts of climate change have put Washington’s water supplies at risk. The Kitsap Watershed increasingly lacks water when and where it is needed, particularly during the summer months.

Skokomish-Dosewallips (WRIA 16): This watershed consists of the Skokomish and Dosewallips Rivers and many tributary creeks and streams. Annual precipitation in the Skokomish-Dosewallips Watershed ranges from 40 to 100 inches per year. Most of this precipitation arrives during the winter months when water demands are the lowest. During the summer, the snowpack is gone, there is little rain, and naturally low stream flows are dependent on groundwater inflow. This means that groundwater and surface water are least available when water demands are the highest. The topography in this watershed limits large residential development potential to areas situated close to Hood Canal and in the Skokomish Valley.

The following creeks and river are the main freshwater inputs to the South Puget Sound GRP:

  • Coulter
  • Minter
  • Rocky
  • Sherwood
  • Cranberry
  • Johns
  • Goldborough
  • Mill
  • Skookum
  • Kennedy/Schneider
  • Perry
  • McLane
  • Woodland
  • McMinster
  • Deschutes River

The southern basin of Puget Sound (south of the Tacoma Narrows) is characterized by slow circulation and shallow depths.  The longest flushing times occur in the summer and fall, while the shortest flushing occurs in the winter.  The average full flushing is 67 days.

Salinity maximum is typically reached in October with an average value of 30.7 Practical Salinity Units (PSU), and the minimum between February and May with an average of 29.5 PSU. Salinity shows significant year-to-year variability. The minimum value of salinity, for example, varies by as much as 0.7 PSU, which is 60 percent of the average range of the seasonal cycle, and the timing of the minimum also varies, in some years occurring as late as in June. In contrast, the maximum salinity remains remarkably stable from year to year, except it may fall below 30 PSU in years in which coastal upwelling in the Pacific coast is reduced due to the influence of El Nino – Southern Oscillation. (EAP)

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Climate and Winds

Washington’s climate is mild. Wind in the Puget Sound varies between years. There are several climatic controls which have a definite influence on the climate, namely; (a) terrain, (b) Pacific Ocean, and (c) semi-permanent high and low pressure regions located over the North Pacific Ocean.  The effect of these various controls combine to produce entirely different conditions within short distances. The strongest winds are generally from the south or southwest and occur during the late fall and winter.  The prevailing directions of the wind is south or southwest during the wet season and northwest in summer.  The average wind velocity is less than 10 m.p.h.  Annual precipitation ranges from 32 to 45 inches and winter season snowfall ranges from 10 to 20 inches.  Both rainfall and snowfall increase with a slight increase in elevation and distance from the Sound.  Snow generally melts rather quickly and depths seldom exceed six to 15 inches

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South Puget Sound temperature peaks in late August to early September with an average maximum value of 54.5°F and bottoms in February with an average minimum of 46.4°F. The average January maximum temperature ranges from 41° to 45° F and minimum temperatures from 28° to 32° F.  During July, the average maximum temperature is 78° F in the vicinity of Olympia, and the minimum temperature is near 50° F.  Maximum temperatures have reached 100° F. Summers are cool and comparatively dry and winters are mild, wet and cloudy.  The average number of clear or only partly cloudy days each month varies from four to eight in winter, eight to 15 in spring and fall, and 15 to 20 in summer. During July and August, the driest months, it is not unusual for two to four weeks to pass with only a few showers; however, in December and January, the wettest months, precipitation is frequently recorded on 20 to 25 days or more each month.  During the wet season, rainfall is usually a light to moderate intensity and continuous over a period of time. (WRCC)

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Tides and Currents

The Puget Sound system consists of four deep basins connected by shallower sills. South Puget Sound basin begins south of the Tacoma Narrows.  South Puget Sound experiences mixed tides, two high and two low tides each day. The difference between high tide and low tide, or the tidal range, varies as much as 14.4 -16 ft at Olympia and Shelton.

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Large water surface elevation differences produce strong tidal currents (~1 m/s). Density differences produce weaker estuarine circulation currents (~0.1 m/s) that vary with depth, freshwater input, stratification, and wind. Tidal and estuarine circulation result in a net outflow of buoyant fresher water at the surface and a compensating inflow of denser saltwater from North and Central Puget Sound at depth that ultimately draws from the Pacific Ocean.

Currents in the Southern Basin are strongly influenced by tides, due largely to the shallowness of this area. Currents tend to be strongest in narrow channels. In general, surface waters flow north and deeper waters flow south. Among the five westernmost inlets, Case, Budd, Eld, Totten, and Hammersley, the circulation patterns of Budd and Eld inlets are largely independent of those in Totten and Hammersley inlets due largely to the shallowness of Squaxin Passage.  These current patterns are characterized by flows of high salinity waters from Budd and Eld inlets into the south end of Case Inlet, and from Totten and Hammersley inlets into the north end of Case Inlet.  Flows of freshwater into the north and sound ends of Case Inlet originate from surface water runoff and the Nisqually River, respectively. (NOAA)

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Risk Assessment

The South Puget Sound is plentiful in natural, cultural, and economic resources, all at risk of injury from oil spills.  Potential oil spill risks include, but are not limited to oil pipelines, commercial vessel traffic, road systems, rail transportation, aircraft, recreational boating, and other oil spill risks.  This section briefly discusses these risks and how they could impact the GRP planning area.

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Oil Types: Both refined petroleum products and crude oils are transported in bulk within this planning area. Crude oil contains a mix of hydrocarbons with a wide range of properties, while a refined product is a single type of oil, such as diesel or gasoline. Depending on the oil and the characteristics of the water the oil is spilled into, some of the oil transported in this planning area may not float.

Different oils will behave differently when spilled to water. Some heavy oils will sink immediately, some oil suspends in the water column, and lighter oils may remain on the surface and evaporate within hours. Over time, oil that initially floats can weather and mix with sediment, causing it to submerge or sink.  Non-floating oils pose a specific risk to the environment because they can harm underwater or bottom-dwelling species that would otherwise be unaffected during an oil spill that remained floating on the water’s surface.

Traditional response strategies, including the booming strategies in this GRP, are designed for floating oil. However, there are steps we can take to plan for and respond to a non-floating oil spill. Section 3 provides an overview of areas where non-floating oil might accumulate if spilled within this planning area, along with information on specific tactics that may be effective during a response. More response options recommended for finding and recovering oil below the water’s surface can be found in the Non-Floating Oil Spill Response Tool (NWACP Section 9412).

Commercial Vessel Traffic: The only port facilities within this GRP boundary are the Port of Olympia and the Port of Shelton, both of which occasionally host large commercial vessel traffic.  Neither of the ports transfer crude oil products.  The potential for vessel collisions, allisions, or groundings presents a significant spill risk in the planning area.  Large commercial vessels, including tug and barge combinations, carry substantial amounts of heavy and blended fuel oils and other petroleum products.  Increased volumes of vessel traffic in the area increase the risk of injury to sensitive resources from oil spills involving commercial vessels.

Road Systems: Vehicle traffic on roadways pose an oil spill risk in areas where they run adjacent to the shoreline, or cross over lakes, rivers, creeks, and ditches that drain into the Puget Sound.  Interstate 5 runs parallel to the Sound on the eastern edge of the planning area.  A vehicle spill onto one of these bridges or roadways can cause fuel or oil to flow from hardened surfaces into the sound.  Commercial trucks can contain hundreds to thousands of gallons of fuel and oil, especially fully loaded tank trucks, and may carry almost any kind of cargo, including hazardous waste or other materials that might injure sensitive resources if spilled.  Smaller vehicle accidents pose a risk as well, a risk commensurate to the volume of fuel and oil they carry.

Rail Transportation: Rail companies transport oil via both unit trains and manifest trains in this area.  Unit trains include: up to four locomotives, buffer cars, and 118 loaded tank cars transporting oil in 714-barrel (29,998 gallon) capacity USDOT-approved tank cars.  Manifest trains include: up to four locomotives, a mix of non-oil merchandise cars, and one or more 714-barrel (29,998 gallon) capacity USDOT-approved tank cars carrying refined oil products, such as diesel, lubrication oil, or gasoline.  These trains may include emptied tank cars, each with residual quantities of up to 1,800 gallons of crude oil or petroleum products.  Every train locomotive typically holds a few hundred gallons of engine lubrication oil, plus saddle tanks that each have an approximate capacity of 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel.  Manifest trains may also transport biological oils and non-petroleum chemicals.

Unit trains carrying crude currently operate on specific routes.  Unit trains carrying crude from the Bakken Formation in North Dakota enter Washington State near Spokane, continue along the Columbia River to Vancouver, and then head north along I-5. (Ecology Rail Study)

BNSF and Union Pacific (UP) rail lines run parallel to Washington inland and marine water resources. BNSF owns rail at the west of the SPS GRP boundary in Mason County starting at on Squaxin Island Tribal land located east of Kamilche. Rail running parallel to water are mainly to the east. The line runs north and parallel to the Little Skookum Inlet that drains to Totten Inlet. From the start the line runs 7.5 miles to and through Shelton continuing north and parallel to Oakland Bay for 1.8 miles.

BNSF owns rail beginning at Deschutes wetlands located along the Woodland Creek recreational trail and Olympia Firefighter training facility. The line runs east for almost 4.0 miles along Lacey Blvd then along Pacific Ave SE at Golf Club Rd continuing along Union Mills Rd. UP’s line runs through downtown Olympia starting west of the Deschutes Pkwy SW and NE east of Hwy 101 beginning at. With headwaters at Black Lake, the line runs along the Percival Creek ravine and crosses Capitol Lake at 0.6 miles for 0.2 miles before running through the downtown for a total distance of ~2.5 miles in Thurston County. BNSF owns rail in Pierce County that begins in Dupont located at the mouth of Red Salmon Creek on the east side of the Nisqually Reach. The line runs NNE along the shoreline of the eastern side of the Nisqually Reach and the Puget Sound for ~11 miles ending just south of Day Island located south of the Titlow Beach marine preserve in West Tacoma. UP’s trains generally contain mixed cargo loads, and may include the transport of hazardous materials and Bakken crude oil.

Aircraft: The Sanderson Field Airport is located near the Port of Shelton in Mason County.  Owned by the Port of Shelton and managed by Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), it is primarily used for commercial, corporate, and recreational purposes. The American Lake seaplane base is located in Lakewood, seven miles south of Tacoma. The base is owned by the City of Lakewood. There are two runways that serve general aviation flights where aircraft take off and land on the lake. Since these airports are close to or on water, the potential exists for aircraft failures during inbound or outbound flights that could result in a spill by releasing jet fuel to the Puget Sound or its tributaries.

Recreational Boating: Accidents involving recreational watercraft on the Puget Sound have the potential to result in spills of anywhere from a few gallons of gasoline, up to hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel.  Examples of such accidents include: collisions, a vessel grounding, catching on fire, sinking, or exploding.  These types of accidents, as well as problems with bilge discharges and refueling operations, the most typical types of spills to occur, have a negative impact on sensitive river resources.

Other Spill Risks: Other potential oil spill risks in the area include: road run-off during rain events, on-shore or near shore construction activities where heavy equipment is being operated, and the migration of spilled oil through soil on lands adjacent to the river or along creek or stream banks.

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Resources at Risk

This section provides a summary of natural, cultural, and economic resources at risk in the vicinity of the south Puget Sound area, including those resources at risk from oils with the potential to sink or submerge. It provides general information on habitat, fish, and wildlife resources, and locations in the area where sensitive natural resource concerns have been identified. It offers a summary of cultural resources that include fundamental procedures for the discovery of cultural artifacts and human skeletal remains. A list of cultural and economic resources in the area and general information about flight restrictions, hazing, and oiled wildlife is detailed below.

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This section is purposely broad in scope and should not be considered comprehensive. Some of the sensitive resources described in this section cannot be addressed in Section 4 (Response Strategies and Priorities) because it is not possible to conduct effective response activities in these locations. Additional information from private organizations or federal, state, tribal, and local government agencies should also be sought during spills.

This material is presented with enough detail to give general information about the area during the first phase of a spill response. During an actual incident, more information about resources at risk will be available from the Environmental Unit in the Planning Section.

Specific resource concerns related to areas that already have designated protection strategies (see Section 4) may be found in the “Resources Protected” column of the matrix describing the individual strategies.

The information provided in this section can be used in:

  • Assisting the Environmental Unit (EU) and Operations Sections in developing additional response strategies beyond those found in Section 4.
  • Providing resource at risk “context” to responders, clean-up workers, and others during the initial phase of a spill response in the GRP area.
  • Briefing responders and incident command staff that may be unfamiliar with sensitive resource concerns in the GRP area.
  • Providing background information for personnel involved in media presentations and public outreach during a spill incident.
  • Providing information on benthic and water column species or cultural resources present to assist in planning for oils with the potential to sink or submerge.

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Natural Resources at Risk – Summary

This area contains a wide variety of marine, aquatic, riparian, and upland habitats. These habitats support many of Washington’s anadromous salmonid species as well as a diversity of other wildlife including mammals, birds, and amphibians. Due to their life histories and/or behaviors, some of these species are unlikely to be directly oiled during a spill incident but may be disturbed by other operations such as cleanup, reconnaissance, or fire suppression activities. Some of the bird species are resident throughout the year, but many others seasonally migrate through this area.

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Several the species found in this area have been classified under the Federal Endangered Species Act or by the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Classification types are:

  • Federal Endangered (FE)
  • Federal Threatened (FT)
  • Federal Candidate (FC)
  • State Endangered (SE)
  • State Threatened (ST)
  • State Sensitive (SS)

Federal and State listed species (subspecies shown in parenthesis) that may occur within this area include:


  • common loon [SS]
  • marbled murrelet [FT/SE]
  • northern spotted owl [FT/SE]
  • sand hill crane [SE]
  • streaked horned lark [FT/SE]
  • yellow-billed cuckoo [FT/SE]


  • gray whale [SS]
  • humpback whale (Central American DPS) [FE/SE]
  • humpback whale (Mexican DPS) [FT/SE]
  • killer whale (southern resident) [FE/SE]
  • western gray squirrel [ST]
  • pocket gopher (Olympia, Roy Prairie, Yelm) [FT/ST]


  • bocaccio rockfish [FE]
  • bull trout [FT]
  • chinook salmon (Puget Sound) [FT]
  • eulachon [FT] Olympic mudminnow [SS]
  • steelhead (Puget Sound) [FT]
  • yelloweye rockfish [FT]


  • Oregon spotted frog [FT/SE]
  • western (Pacific) pond turtle [SE]


  • golden paintbrush [FT]
  • Kincaid’s lupine [FT]
  • Nelson’s checker-mallow [FT]
  • water howellia [FT]

Critical Habitats:

Critical habitat are the specific areas, occupied by an endangered or threatened species at the time it was listed, that contain the physical or biological features that are essential to the conservation of that species – and that may need special management or protection. Critical habitat may also include areas that were not occupied by the species at the time of listing but are essential to its conservation.

The following species have federally designated critical habitats within this area:

  • bocaccio rockfish
  • bull trout
  • chinook (Puget Sound)
  • killer whale (southern resident)
  • steelhead (Puget Sound)
  • yelloweye rockfish

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General Resource Concerns


  • Intertidal and shallow subtidal mud/sand flats occur in many of the larger bays in the region (e.g. the northern ends of Carr and Case Inlets, the Nisqually delta, and the southern portions of Totten, Eld, and Budd Inlets). These habitats are important feeding areas for marine birds, shorebirds and herons. These habitats are also important rearing areas for juvenile salmonids, Dungeness crab, hardshell clams, and other fish and shellfish.
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  • Eelgrass beds occur extensively throughout the region, appearing primarily as beds along shoreline. It is most abundant from Nisqually Reach northward into Carr Inlet and in the northern part of Case Inlet. These areas serve as critical nursery areas for fish and shellfish; spawning habitat for herring; and important foraging areas for crab, salmon and other fishes, waterfowl, and a variety of marine birds.
  • Kelp beds are primarily found in the vicinity of the Tacoma Narrows and at the southern tip of Squaxin Island. These habitats provide critical nursery areas for fish and shellfish as well as important spawning habitat for herring and feeding areas for waterfowl.
  • Salt marshes occur in sheltered areas throughout the region, especially near the heads of some of the inlets and at the Nisqually River delta. These habitats support many fish and wildlife species.
  • Mixed sand/gravel beaches serve as spawning habitat for surf smelt and sand lance and support large numbers of hardshell clams.
  • The rivers and streams of this region provide spawning, rearing, and foraging habitat for various salmonid species (including salmon, steelhead, and trout). The sloughs and river deltas associated with the larger drainages provide a variety of key habitats for fish, shellfish, waterfowl, harbor seals, and other species. The associated riparian scrub and woodlands play a crucial role in supporting a large diversity and abundance of songbird species as breeding, migrating, and overwintering habitat.
  • Wetlands in this region range from freshwater emergent, freshwater forested, to freshwater ponds and lakes. All wetland types support a diverse array of bird, insect and fish and wildlife species.
  • Human-made structures such as pilings, rock jetties or log rafts may be used as roosting or nesting areas for a variety of birds and as haulout areas for seals.
  • The native oak and prairie habitats present in this region, primarily in the vicinity of Joint Base Lewis McCord (JBLM), are extremely rare and sensitive to disturbance. These areas support a wide variety of wildlife typically including listed species such as the Mardon skipper [SE] and Taylor’s checkerspot [FE/SE] butterflies, the Mazama pocket gopher [FT/SE], the streaked horned lark [FT/SE], and the western gray squirrel [ST].
  • Numerous restoration sites exist throughout this area where significant efforts have occurred to restore natural functions in degraded habitats.
  • A variety of subtidal habitatsexists within this area, each of which supports a different assemblage of wildlife species as generally described below.
    • Soft sediment: This category includes areas of clays, mud, sand and gravel which typically possess relatively low vertical relief. Animals that tend to live on the surface in these habitats can include sea cucumbers, sea stars, crustaceans such as crab and shrimp, and bottom fish such as skate, cod, and the flat fishes. These soft sediment habitats also support shellfish and other invertebrates including bivalves, worms, brittle stars, shrimplike crustaceans whose burrowing or foraging activities can penetrate up to one meter below the subsurface bottom. In deeper waters, this habitat type may also include the deep sand fields that are necessary overwintering habitat for sand lance, an environmentally critical forage fish.
    • Rock reefs: These areas serve as important habitat for a wide range of species including mobile invertebrates (e.g. snails, sea slugs, sea cucumbers, sea stars, etc.) and immobile species (e.g. anemones, barnacles, shellfish, sponges, tubeworms, etc.). Macro algae and kelps also widely utilize the structure that this type of habitat provides. The crevices and overhangs associated with these reefs serve as valuable habitat for a wide variety of other species such as crabs, shrimp, octopus, wolf eel, rockfish, and lingcod. If located within their capabilities to dive, these areas may also serve as important foraging areas for birds and marine mammals.
    • Boulder and cobble fields: Larger, relatively stable boulders provide many of the same ecological functions described for rock reefs while the spaces between boulders offer enhanced refuge areas for bottom dwelling invertebrates and fish. The relative instability of the smaller cobble makes them less valuable than reefs or boulders to immobile marine life. Nonetheless, many marine organisms may live on or between the cobblestones and predatory species often utilize these habitats as foraging areas. As with the rocky reefs, these habitats may also serve as important foraging areas for birds and marine mammals as well if they are located within a species ability to dive. Depending on how much sediment the currents move through the area, the spaces between the rocks may be filled with sediment that can also support bottom dwelling life forms.
    • Non-hard rock walls: As a result of the glacial origin of the Puget Sound basin, there are numerous areas of steep consolidated glacial deposits, particularly in the vicinity of the Tacoma Narrows and Colvos Passage. These structures function much like rock reefs but have a more permeable surface as animal activity and erosion creates temporary pockets in the surface. The biota of these habitats is similar to that of rock reefs except that long-lived, immobile life forms (such as sea anemones) may be less abundant due to the sloughing of the wall surface.
    • Water column: Much of the primary marine productivity in this region occurs in the upper 30 meters of the water column due to limited light penetration and nutrient availability. As a result of this, this upper part of the water column tends to concentrate the planktonic larval forms of fish and a wide range of invertebrates, particularly during the spring plankton blooms. The deeper water column also serves as habitat for wide-ranging fish such as salmon, forage fish (herring, smelt, and sandlance), sharks, as well as a wide variety of birds and marine mammals that utilize this habitat as foraging areas.

Fish and Shellfish:

  • Northwest salmonid species are present throughout this region, with spawning occurring in rivers (Nisqually and the Deschutes) and numerous smaller streams. Juvenile salmonids use shallow nearshore areas for feeding, rearing, and migration.
  • Diverse marine habitats in the region support a variety of species of other marine fish, including rockfish, flatfish, sole, cabezon, and lingcod.
  • Forage fish spawning occurs throughout the region. Herring spawning areas are located within semi-protected bays and inlets such as Carr Inlet, Wollochet Bay, Hale Passage, Squaxin Passage, and Hammersly Inlet. Surf smelt and sandlance spawn on intertidal sand and gravel beaches throughout the region.
  • Dungeness crabs are widely distributed throughout the region, with shallow subtidal habitats providing critical habitat for all life stages of this species.
  • Hardshell clams are found intertidally throughout the region, with geoducks occurring in the deeper subtidal areas.


  • Seabird concentrations routinely occur year-round in areas such as the Tacoma Narrows, Carr Inlet, Case Inlet, the Nisqually Reach, the Treble Point/Johnson Point area, and in Colvos Passage (north of the Tacoma Narrows). The largest concentrations occur in these areas during the fall through spring seasons. There are no significant seabird nesting colonies in this region.
  • Waterfowl concentrations may be found seasonally throughout the region, notably in areas such as the Nisqually River delta, and Oyster Bay (in Totten Inlet). Significant concentrations also occur within Quartermaster Harbor, just to the north of the Tacoma Narrows.
  • The two significant shorebird concentration areas within this region are Oyster Bay and the Nisqually River delta. Smaller shorebird concentrations are common at scattered sites throughout the region.
  • Harbor seal haulouts are scattered throughout the region. Regionally important sites include Gertrude Island (within Still Harbor on McNeil Island), Eagle Island, the Nisqually River delta, Chapman Bay (in Henderson Inlet), and Cutts Island (in Carr Inlet). In addition, California sea lions are often observed using navigational buoys and log rafts as haulouts.
  • Sensitive nesting species in the region include bald eagles, ospreys, peregrine falcons and great blue herons. Purple martins are also present throughout the area. The eagles and herons typically forage in intertidal and nearshore waters year-round.
  • Whales, including both southern resident and transient killer (aka “orca”) whales, humpback, and gray occasionally visit this region along with other cetaceans such as dolphins and porpoise.
  • Resident and migratory songbirds heavily utilize riparian habitats year-round and are susceptible to response activities that disturb riparian vegetation.
  • Mammals common to the region include semi-aquatic species such as beaver, muskrat, river otter, mink and raccoon. These small mammals are vulnerable to contact with spilled oil because of their habitat preferences.
  • Reptiles and amphibians may be found in freshwater systems throughout the region.

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Specific Geographic Areas of Concern – Overview

(Note: Includes sensitive sites in bordering GRP regions – see area maps at end of section)

Eastern Section (see Figure 1)

  1. Carr Inlet: Eelgrass habitat. Extensive spawning habitat for surf smelt and localized spawning habitat for herring and sandlance. Extensive shellfish habitat, particularly in Burley Lagoon. Waterfowl and seabird concentrations in upper reaches of inlet and in Burley Lagoon.
  2. Colvos Passage: Eelgrass and kelp habitats. Surf smelt and sandlance spawning beaches. Marine bird concentration area (fall through spring).
  3. Quartermaster Harbor: Eelgrass and saltmarsh habitats. Significant spawning area for herring and surf smelt. Shorebird and waterfowl concentrations (fall through spring). Salmonid spawning stream.
  4. Tacoma Narrows: Kelp habitat. Rockfish, ling cod, urchins. Marine bird concentration area (fall through spring).
  5. Wollochet Bay: Eelgrass and intertidal mudflat habitats. Spawning habitat for herring and other forage fish. Salmonid spawning stream. Fall through spring waterfowl concentrations.
  6. Gertrude Island (within McNeil Island’s Still Harbor): Site of the largest harbor seal haulout in southern Puget Sound.
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Figure 1: Specific areas of concern in the eastern portion of the South Puget Sound GRP.

Western Section (see Figure 2)

  1. Upper Case Inlet (north of Hartstene Is.): The northern reach of this inlet contains large areas of important intertidal and shallow subtidal habitat, including eelgrass and saltmarsh. Fish and wildlife within this area include hardshell clams, forage fish, salmonids, marine birds and herons.
  2. Oakland Bay: This bay contains large areas of important intertidal and shallow subtidal habitat, several salmonid spawning streams, and saltmarsh habitat. Key fish and wildlife concerns within this area include hardshell clams and salmonids.
  3. Hope and Squaxin Island (west side): The confluence of Hammersley and Totten Inlets and Pickering and Squaxin Passages supports dense concentrations of various fish and wildlife. Kelp bed at southern end of Squaxin. Forage fish spawning includes herring, sandlance and surf smelt. Intertidal and shallow subtidal habitats in this area support hardshell clams and provide rearing habitat for juvenile salmonids. Waterfowl and marine bird concentrations are common in this area. Hope Island is a State park. Tribal lands and resources are present on Squaxin Island.

Figure 2: Specific areas of concern within the western portion of the South Puget Sound GRP.

Southern Section (see Figure 3)

  1. Totten Inlet: Oyster Bay, at the south end of this inlet, is the most important shorebird concentration area in the south Sound. It is also one of the largest wintering waterfowl concentration areas in this region. Hardshell clams and forage fish spawning habitat occur throughout the inlet and herring spawning occurs in Gallagher Cove.
  2. Eld Inlet: Intertidal habitat at the head of the bay supports hardshell clams and concentrations of wintering shorebirds. Forage fish spawning habitat is present on most shorelines of the inlet.
  3. Budd Inlet: Forage fish spawning beaches throughout inlet. Small shorebird concentration areas in southern reach of inlet.
  4. Henderson Inlet: Extensive intertidal and shallow subtidal shellfish habitat in the southern end of inlet and within Woodard and Chapman Bays that provide important foraging habitat for herons. Woodard Bay and Chapman Bays are part of a DNR Natural Resource Conservation Area which contains the largest great blue heron nesting colony, and the second largest harbor seal haulout area, in southern Puget Sound. Marine bird concentrations occur seasonally throughout the inlet and its bays.
  5. Nisqually Reach (open waters off the mouth of the Nisqually River from Tatsolo Point west to Tolmie State Park): Extensive eelgrass beds and shallow intertidal habitats. Dungeness crab and forage fish spawning habitats along with juvenile salmonid rearing habitat. Large concentrations of waterfowl and seabirds, primarily occurring fall through spring. Marbled murrelet present year-round. Marine mammal presence year-round. The extensive network of slough, salt marsh and riparian habitats at the mouth of the river support a wide array of fish and wildlife throughout the year and large numbers of waterfowl, marine birds, shorebirds and bald eagles during the winter months. The Nisqually River is the largest salmonid spawning river in south Puget Sound. Tribal and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service refuge lands.
  6. Oro Bay (Anderson Island): Eelgrass, shallow intertidal and salt marsh habitats. Forage fish spawning beaches. Hardshell clams and Dungeness crab. Juvenile salmonid rearing habitat.

Figure 3: Specific areas of concern in the southern portion of the South Puget Sound GRP.

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Cultural Resources at Risk – Summary

Culturally significant resources are present within the planning area.  Information regarding the type and location of cultural resources is maintained by the Washington Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation (WDAHP).  This sensitive information is made available to the Washington Department of Ecology for oil spill preparedness and response planning.  The Tribal Historic Preservation Offices (THPOs) or Cultural Resource Departments of local tribes (see Table 6‑1) may also be able to provide information on cultural resources at risk in the area and should be contacted, along with WDAHP, through normal trustee notification processes when significant oil spills, or smaller spills above reportable thresholds, occur in the area.

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During a spill response, after the Unified Command is established, information related to specific archeological concerns will be coordinated through the Environmental Unit.  In order to ensure that tactical response strategies do not inadvertently harm culturally sensitive sites, WDAHP should be consulted before disturbing any soil or sediment during a response action, including submerged soils or sediments.  WDAHP and/or the Tribal governments may assign a person, or provide a list of professional archeologists that can be contracted, to monitor response activities and cleanup operations for the protection of cultural resources at risk.  Due to the sensitive nature of such information, details regarding the location and type of cultural resources present are not included in this document.

Discovery of Human Skeletal Remains

Any human remains, burial sites, or burial-related materials that are discovered during a spill response must be treated with respect at all times (photographing human remains is prohibited to all except the appropriate authorities).  Refer to National Historic Preservation Act Compliance Guidelines (NWACP Section 9403) during an emergency response.

Procedures for the Discovery of Cultural Resources

If any person monitoring work activities or involved in spill response believes that they have encountered cultural resources, all workers must stop immediately and notify the Unified Command and Cultural Resource Specialist.  The area of work stoppage must be adequate to provide for the security, protection, and integrity of the material or artifact(s) discovered.

Prehistoric Cultural Resources (May include, but are not limited to, any of the following items):

  • Lithic debitage (stone chips and other tool-making byproducts)
  • Flaked or ground stone tools
  • Exotic rock, minerals, or quarries
  • Concentrations of organically stained sediments, charcoal, or ash
  • Fire-modified rock
  • Rock alignments or rock structures
  • Bone (burned, modified, or in association with other bone, artifacts, or features)
  • Shell or shell fragments
  • Petroglyphs and pictographs
  • Fish weirs, fish traps, and prehistoric water craft
  • Culturally modified trees
  • Physical locations or features (traditional cultural properties)
  • Submerged villages sites or artifacts

Historic cultural material (May include any of the following items over 50 years old):

  • Bottles, or other glass
  • Cans
  • Ceramics
  • Milled wood, brick, concrete, metal, or other building material
  • Trash dumps
  • Homesteads, building remains
  • Logging, mining, or railroad features
  • Piers, wharves, docks, bridges, dams, or shipwrecks
  • Shipwrecks or other submerged historical objects

Economic Resources at Risk – Summary

Socio-economic sensitive resources are facilities or locations that rely on a body of water to be economically viable.  Because of their location, they could be severely impacted if an oil spill were to occur.  Economically sensitive resources are separated into three categories: critical infrastructure, water dependent commercial areas, and water dependent recreation areas.  The appendix provides a list of economic resources for this GRP area.

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Extensive commercial shellfish aquaculture operations exist in this region as well as tribal, commercial, and recreational fisheries (targeting species such as salmon, crab, and geoduck) are important to area and local economies.

Fish management facilities in this area include:

    • Allison Springs Rearing Pond (NW Marine Tech)
    • Army Net Pen (US Army, Am. Lake)
    • Bills Boathouse Net Pen (Am. Lake)
    • Case Inlet Net Pen
    • Chambers Creek Hatchery (WDFW)
    • Coulter Creek Rearing Pen (WDFW)
    • Elson Creek Hatchery (Squaxin Island Tribe)
    • Filucy Bay Net Pen
    • Garrison Springs Hatchery (WDFW)
    • Hupp Springs Rearing Pond (WDFW)
    • Lakewood (WDFW)
    • Marble Creek incubator (EN Co-op)
    • Minter Creek Hatchery (WDFW)
    • Shaws Cove Net Pen
    • South Sound Net Pen (WDFW)
    • Squaxin Island Net Pen (Squaxin Island Tribe)
    • Titlow Rearing Pond
    • Tumwater Falls Hatcher (WDFW)
    • Woodard Bay Net Pen
    • Woodard Creek Incubator (EN Co-op)

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General Information

Flight Restriction Zones: The Environmental Unit (Planning Section) may recommend flight restriction zones to minimize disturbance or injury to wildlife during an oil spill. Pilots/operators can decrease the risk of aircraft/bird collisions, prevent the accidental driving of wildlife into oiled areas, and minimize abandonment of nests by keeping a safe distance and altitude from these identified sensitive areas. The Air Operations Branch (Operations Section) will manage all aircraft operations related to a response and will coordinate the establishment of any Flight Restriction Zones as appropriate. Environmental Unit staff will work with the Air Operations Branch Director to resolve any conflicts that arise between flight activities and sensitive resources.

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In addition to restrictions associated with wildlife, Tribal authorities may also request notification when overflights are likely to affect culturally sensitive areas within reservations.  See Oil Spill Best Management Practices (NWACP Section 9301) for more information on the use of aircraft and helicopters in open water and shoreline responses.

Wildlife Deterrence: The Wildlife Deterrence Unit within the Wildlife Branch (Operations Section) manages wildlife deterrence operations. These are actions intended to minimize injuries to wildlife by keeping animals away from the oil and cleanup operations. Deterrence activities may include using acoustic or visual deterrent devices, boats, aircraft or other tools. The Wildlife Branch works with state and federal agencies, and the Environmental Unit (Planning Section), to develop deterrence plans as appropriate. For more information see the Northwest Wildlife Response Plan (NWACP Section 9310) and Northwest Area Wildlife Deterrence Resources (NWACP Section 9311).

Oiled Wildlife: Capturing oiled wildlife may be hazardous to both personnel and the affected animals. Incident personnel should not try to approach or capture oiled wildlife but should report any observations of oiled wildlife to the Wildlife Branch (Operations Section). For more information see the Northwest Wildlife Response Plan (NWACP Section 9310).

Wilderness Areas: There are no federally designated wilderness areas present in this GRP region.

Aquatic Invasive Species: The waters of this region may contain aquatic invasive species (AIS) – species of plants and/or animals that are not native to an area and that can be harmful to an area’s ecosystem. If so, preventative actions may be required to prevent the spread of these species as a result of spill response activities and the Environmental Unit is able to recommend operational techniques and strategies to assist with this issue.

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