Nearshore sediment monitoring for the Stormwater Action Monitoring (SAM) Program, Puget Sound, western Washington

Scientific Investigations Report 2018-5076

Prepared in cooperation with the Washington State Department of Ecology, Stormwater Action Monitoring (SAM) Program
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Chemicals such as metals and organics (polychlorinated biphenyl [PCBs], polybrominated diphenyl ethers [PBDEs], polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PAHs], and phthalates) continue to enter Puget Sound, western Washington, from point sources (such as industrial and municipal outfalls) and combined sewer outfalls and non-point sources (such as stormwater runoff). Runoff during storm events has been identified as a major source of contamination entering Puget Sound and has been implicated in the degradation of nearshore habitats and biota. Metals, organic chemicals, and other pollutants are known to accumulate in sediments such as those present along the shoreline of Puget Sound. In addition to chemical contaminants, small plastic particles (known as microplastics), found in marine waters of Puget Sound and suspected of being in aquatic sediments, are a potential concern because they can be ingested by animals and are suspected of transporting sorbed chemicals such as PCBs and metals.

The Stormwater Work Group of Puget Sound (SWG) (composed of State and municipal stormwater permittees, and other stakeholders) developed a strategy to address sediment conditions in the nearshore environment of Puget Sound. As part of this strategy, the SWG developed a regional stormwater monitoring strategy designed to inform monitoring requirements in National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) stormwater permits issued by the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology). The monitoring program is referred to as the Stormwater Action Monitoring (SAM).

The overall focus of the work described in this report is to address one of the goals of SAM, which is to characterize the status, spatial extent, and quality of Puget Sound sediment chemicals in the nearshore urban areas. The nearshore urban areas are defined as areas parallel to established Urban Growth Areas (UGAs) using a spatially balanced probabilistic Generalized Random Tessellation Stratified (GRTS) sampling design. One of the benefits of the GRTS sampling design used for this study is that it allows one to efficiently extrapolate from a relatively small number of sampled nearshore sites to the entire nearshore shoreline within the 2011 defined UGA boundaries of Puget Sound. In addition to characterizing nearshore sediment chemical concentrations, this study also characterized the abundance of microplastics in the nearshore sediment.

A total of 41 randomly selected sites were sampled throughout Puget Sound in summer and early autumn of 2016. All sampling sites were located at 6 feet below the Mean Lower Low Water line. The top 2–3 centimeters of sediment were collected using a boat-mounted, pre-cleaned stainless-steel box corer. All chemical samples were sieved to 2 millimeters and placed in appropriate containers for chemical analysis for PCBs, PBDEs, PAHs, phthalates, metals, total organic carbon, and grain size. Pre-sieved sediment samples were stored in glass containers for microplastic analysis. Nearshore sediment chemical concentrations were summarized using numerous statistical approaches to examine the minimum, mean, and maximum concentrations for each of the compounds analyzed and to compare the results to criteria and other nearshore and marine sediment studies. 

The GRTS sampling design also allowed the authors to assess the percentage of the UGA nearshore environment that did not meet established standards or criteria for each chemical analyzed. Additionally, regression and machine learning statistical analyses were used to examine relations between measured chemical concentrations, and land cover and geologic features at multiple scales within the watersheds adjacent to sampling sites. The influence of marine hydrodynamic factors on nearshore sediment chemical concentrations was statistically evaluated with nonparametric methods by assigning each sampling site to one of five nearshore drift cell types based on its location. The Puget Sound shoreline can be divided into segments, referred to as drift cells, based on the movement of sediment along the shore by waves. Each drift cell type has a unique influence on nearshore sediment transport.

The nearshore sediment chemical concentrations for organics and metals generally were low, and in most cases less than Washington State criteria. The concentrations of some PAHs were greater than the criteria, but these exceedances were limited to one or two sites. The results of the probabilistic study design determined that, for the PAHs examined, 96 percent or more of the 1,344 km of shoreline represented by this study had concentrations less than any established criteria. For the remaining organics (PCBs and PBDEs), the probabilistic study design indicates that more than 98 percent of shoreline examined had concentrations less than criteria or proposed standards. For the metals, the results of the study indicate that 100 percent of the nearshore sediment had concentrations less than the criteria. The relations between sediment organic and metal concentrations, and adjacent watershed land cover and the particle size of the samples, were determined to be weakly related. Although weakly related, the particle size of the sediment in a sample typically explained more of the variation in metal concentrations than organics. While the measured watershed attributes adjacent to the sampling sites and sediment size of the samples were weakly related to chemical concentrations, they were significantly related to unique drift cells along the shoreline of Puget Sound known as drift cells. Each drift cell represents a long-term directional transport of sediment from its source to its depositional zone. Sediment chemical concentrations were significantly higher in drift cells with limited sediment movement compared to those with higher sediment transport energy.

Microplastics in the nearshore sediment ranged from 0.02 to 0.65 pieces per gram of sediment, with a mean of 0.19 pieces per gram of sediment, and were dominated by small fibers (355–1,000 micrometers). Like chemical concentrations, microplastics concentrations in the nearshore sediment were poorly related to watershed land cover. Although not significantly different, microplastics concentrations generally were higher in the low energy drift cells compared to the high energy drift cells.

The results of this study provide a statistically valid status assessment of current nearshore sediment chemical conditions throughout Puget Sound in those areas adjacent to defined UGAs. In addition to the study findings of relatively low concentrations of PCBs, PBDEs, PAHs, phthalates, and metals, the study design provides a statistically valid tool for evaluating changes in these compounds over time if future nearshore sediment assessments are done. Furthermore, the assessment of microplastic abundance represents the first study of its kind that can be used as a benchmark for future evaluations. The results of this study will help inform Ecology in the implementation of monitoring requirements as part of its NPDES stormwater permitting process.

Suggested Citation

Black, R.W., Barnes, A., Elliot, C., and Lanksbury, J., 2018, Nearshore sediment monitoring for the Stormwater Action Monitoring (SAM) Program, Puget Sound, western Washington: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2018-5076, 53 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Purpose and Scope
  • Methods
  • Results of Puget Sound Nearshore Monitoring
  • Discussion of Results
  • Considerations for Future Nearshore Sediment Work
  • Summary
  • Acknowledgments
  • References Cited
  • Appendixes

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Nearshore sediment monitoring for the Stormwater Action Monitoring (SAM) Program, Puget Sound, western Washington
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Washington Water Science Center
Report: vii, 53 p.; Appendixes: 1-6
United States
Other Geospatial:
Puget Sound
Online Only (Y/N):
Additional Online Files (Y/N):