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Saving Puget Sound

Puget Sound Characterization Project

What is a ‘characterization?’Map showing Puget Sound watershed areas

We use the term 'characterization' to describe the results of integrating information from several environmental assessments to provide an ecosystem view of the landscape. A characterization and other science-based information is useful for helping local governments develop:

  • Restoration and protection strategies
  • Land-use plans
  • Designations and regulations
  • Development standards

Puget Sound Characterization

The Puget Sound Characterization is a regional-scale tool that highlights the most important areas to protect, and restore, and those most suitable for development. The program, funded by an EPA grant, is a collaborative effort between Ecology, the Puget Sound Partnership, and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The Characterization covers the entire Puget Sound drainage area — from the Olympic Mountains on the west to the Cascades on the east, including the San Juan Islands.

The Characterization includes watershed assessments of:

  • Water flow (delivery, surface storage, recharge, and discharge)
  • Water quality (sediment, nutrients, pathogens, and metals)
  • Landscape assessments of fish and wildlife habitat in three environments:
    • Terrestrial
    • Freshwater
    • Marine shorelines

The assessments prioritize small watersheds, or habitat areas, relative to one another for their protection and restoration value.

NEW! - March 2014 Try out the new beta-website and web map application to learn more about Puget Sound Watershed Characterization.

The program uses a Watershed Characterization Technical Assistance Team to help guide planners on the interpretation and application of the assessment results in the Puget Sound region. This will ultimately improve land use decisions and conservation strategies for the protection, restoration, and conservation of the Sound’s natural resources by providing:

  • A multi-scale framework for land-use planning that integrates information on water flow, water quality, and habitat within a watershed context
  • Assistance to local governments and non-governmental organizations on applying assessment models and results to specific environmental issues and projects, including:
    • Comprehensive and shoreline plan updates
    • Subarea plans
    • Stormwater planning
    • In-Lieu Fee programs
    • Prioritization of areas for acquisition and restoration.

Water assessments

The water flow and quality assessments for each of the large Puget Sound watersheds, or Water Resource Inventory Areas (WRIAs), are complete. Maps of the results and data for the water assessments are available for download on Ecology's GIS page for this project. The files are contained in a geodatabase that includes:

  • Final results for two assessments (water flow and water quality)
  • Source data used in the analyses
  • All intermediate data layers
Upon request, the Program can also run the assessments for different combinations and sizes of watersheds in order to address specific needs of a local government or non-governmental organization.

For a general introduction to the water assessments, see our guide for local planners: Puget Sound Watershed Characterization: Introduction to the Water Flow Assessment for Puget Sound, July 2010. This document provides examples of how planners can use the information for planning decisions and how it is currently being applied. It contains a general description of:

  • The water flow assessment
  • How the information can be used
  • Intended users
  • Planning processes it can support

For a detailed description of the Characterization, see the final technical document: Puget Sound Characterization - Volume 1: The Water Resource Assessments (Water Flow and Water Quality). This document describes methods, models, and analyses for the water flow and water quality assessment of Puget Sound WRIAs, as well as methods and guidance for applying the model results.

Habitat assessments

The habitat assessment for the Puget Sound Basin are complete, and include models for:

  • A landscape assessment for terrestrial wildlife.
  • A freshwater fish and wildlife assessment.
  • An assessment for marine and near-shore fish and wildlife.

The final document describing the habitat assessment methods, models, analyses, and guidance for application of results to Puget Sound watersheds was published in December 2013.  See the final technical document: Puget Sound Watershed Characterization - Volume 2 (A Coarse-scale Assessment of the Relative Value of Small Drainage Areas and Marine Shorelines for the Conservation of Fish and Wildlife Habitats in Puget Sound Basin). Maps of the results and data for the habitat assessment are available for download on Ecology's GIS page for this project.

The Watershed Characterization Technical Assistance Team

With ongoing support from the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Estuary Program, an inter-agency group of technical experts and scientists from the Washington State Departments of Ecology, Fish & Wildlife and Commerce has been formed to:

  • Provide guidance on interpreting and applying assessment results for potential users of the information in planning processes around Puget Sound.
  • Support potential users of the assessments through trainings, presentations, and the maintenance of a website and web map which provides access to the geospatial data and example applications in planning projects.
  • Support a grant program which funds protection and restoration of watershed resources by local governments.


Colin F. Hume, Coordinator
(425) 649-7139


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