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Water Quality Improvement Projects (TMDLs)

Water Quality Improvement Projects
Puyallup River Basin Area Projects


The Puyallup River drainage basin covers approximately 970 square miles in the Puget Lowland of Washington State. We are working in this basin to address several water quality impairments.



© Don Briggs, Flickr.


Water quality issues

The major streams of the basin are the Puyallup River and its two largest tributaries, the White and Carbon rivers. The lower reach of the Puyallup River is a relatively flat floodplain ranging in elevation from sea level at Commencement Bay to approximately 50 feet at the confluence of the White and Puyallup rivers. Industrial land-use activity is predominant in the lower reaches. Historically, much of the lower Puyallup valley above the tide flats was used for agriculture. Small farms producing vegetables, flower bulbs, and berries are declining in numbers due to encroachment of residential and commercial development. Most of the upland developments are light to medium density residential areas. Gravel is mined commercially at several locations along the northeast and southwest valley walls.

Water bodies in the Puyallup River basin have been listed for several parameters because they did not meet Washington's water quality standards. Parameters of concern include biological oxygen demand (BOD), ammonia, fecal coliform bacteria, pH, sediment, and temperature.



Water quality improvement projects, or total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), were developed on the Puyallup and White rivers. The TMDLs included fecal coliform bacteria, dissolved oxygen, BOD, sediment, ammonia, and temperature. Several of the project water quality improvement reports have been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, the pH project is still in development.

Dissolved oxygen, biological oxygen demand, and ammonia

A TMDL was developed that established waste load allocations for point sources for BOD, ammonia, and chlorine in the Puyallup River basin. Dischargers permitted through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) include ten municipalities, four industrial discharges, and four fish hatcheries. Background and nonpoint source loads were also assessed. In addition to considering existing discharges and nonpoint loads, the potential impact of future dischargers was examined.

Why this matters

Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) is the amount of oxygen required by aerobic microorganisms (organisms that need oxygen to survive) to break down organic matter in water.

Dissolved Oxygen, Biological Oxygen Demand, and Ammonia

Fecal coliform bacteria

The Puyallup River and several tributaries have fecal coliform bacteria levels higher than Washington’s allowed standards for freshwater streams. These typically harmless bacteria tend to exist along with disease-causing bacteria and viruses (i.e., pathogens), so they indicate the potential for pathogens in the water.

We worked with local governments, citizens groups, and permit holders to develop actions needed to reduce fecal coliform in the Puyallup River watershed. The resulting water quality improvement report contains the results of the TMDL study and an implementation plan. The plan identifies implementation activities for various partners, many of which are already underway. After public review we addressed the comments received, made appropriate updates, and submitted the final report to EPA for approval in June 2011. EPA approved the TMDL in September 2011.

The TMDL is now in its implementation phase. Two tributaries to the White River, Bowman and Pussyfoot Creeks, are currently being monitored to determine fecal coliform sources.

We are working with partners in the Puyallup River watershed on a focused TMDL implementation effort. This work includes increased education and outreach, a greater field presence to identify and eliminate nonpoint sources, and work with NPDES permit managers and permittees to ensure TMDL point source requirements are met. These efforts should help to reduce the fecal coliform problem.

Why this matters

Fecal coliform is a type of bacteria found in the feces of warm-blooded animals and humans. When found in water bodies it can be an indicator of the presence of other disease-carrying organisms. It can get into water bodies from failing septic systems and animal waste. High levels of fecal coliform in the water can affect the economy, public health, and environmental quality.

Fecal Coliform Bacteria

White River

Work on the White River is divided into the lower and upper White River.

The lower White River is impaired with pH values that exceed water quality standards. A TMDL project is underway with a Memorandum of Agreement between the Muckleshoot Tribe, EPA, and us. We conducted monitoring in 2012 and are currently modeling the river. A draft technical report is in the works.

In the upper White River, water temperatures exceed state water quality standards in several locations. The river is listed as a spawning area for Chinook salmon and other salmonids. The river was also listed for sediment levels exceeding state water quality standards. The TMDL was submitted to EPA and approved in 2004. The implementation plan was completed in 2006. Most of the implementation recommendations were assigned to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). They are decommissioning roads as funds allow and plantings have occurred, but it takes time to grow trees to a level where they will produce effective shade for the river.

Why this matters

pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of the water. Fish and other aquatic species thrive in water with pH values between 6.5 - 8.5 (7 is considered neutral). If the pH is too high, fish may die.

Too much sediment in the water can irritate fish gills and make it difficult for them to breathe. It also suffocates salmon egg nests.

Threatened and endangered salmon need cold, clean water to survive. If the water temperature is too warm, the salmon are less able to successfully spawn, and may suffer other health effects. 

White River:

  • Lower White : pH
  • Upper White: sediment, temperature


Related information

WRIA 10: Puyallup-White Watershed Information (Water website)

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