Cleaner Water for a Keen Sense of Smell

(By Sharon Selvaggio, Healthy Wildlife and Water Program Director)
"My smeller’s so keen that it just can’t be beat.”


One of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories is The Big Brag. A rabbit brags he can hear a fly cough 90 miles away, prompting a bear to best him by claiming he smells a stale egg 600 miles away. A worm puts the argument to rest by popping out of the ground and boasting he can see all the way around the world. I remember puzzling over it when young. How could one see all around the world exactly?

Now, at age 56, I am reminded of the story when I read about salmon homing.  The salmon’s sense of smell is legendary. According to some it is even stronger than a bear or a bloodhound. We know that the salmon’s sense of smell – which they need for homing to their natal streams – can be affected by certain chemicals, including pesticides, in the parts per billion. 

So is the lack of clean water in places like Puget Sound a major threat? I’ve been studying the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan and the authors seem to think so. The Plan identifies action on water quality/pollution as a “top 10” item necessary for bringing salmon back.

Currently, Puget Sound Chinook salmon are at only 10% of historic numbers; in some watersheds populations are far less. Over 137 species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles depend on salmon for one or more stages of their lives. Recovering salmon has an ecosystem-level consequence. 

The Recovery Plan contains few specifics on pesticides. However, it does remind readers that polluted runoff is considered the leading cause of water pollution in Washington state. This is different than industrial facility waste. For example, pesticides and fertilizers used for home lawn care can wash into surface waters, especially after rain.

The Recovery Plan also emphasizes that improving water quality is not a lofty dream but a necessary and attainable goal. Formal mechanisms exist to clean up water, placing the responsibility for clean water squarely on municipalities and the State.  

Municipalities in urbanized regions are required to obtain permits and show implementation of a stormwater management program to reduce the discharge of pollutants to the “maximum extent practicable.” This includes, among other items, addressing public education and outreach, illicit discharge and pollution prevention. The State designates surface water quality standards to set limits on water pollution.

An important body to keep an eye on is the Washington State Nonpoint Source Workgroup. Washington State's Department of Ecology also develops and coordinates implementation of the State’s Nonpoint Pollution Management Plan, which highlights nonpoint issues needing attention in the state. 

We’ll dive into these topics more in the future, so stay tuned.

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  • Grant Garab
    commented 2019-09-12 06:48:08 -0700
    Glad to see there is a plan in place. Puget Sound is such a beautiful place and I would hate to see the beauty of it diminish due to water pollution. I own and we do our best to do our part disposing of and handling the chemicals we use properly.
  • Carolina Cardinal
    commented 2019-01-01 23:56:09 -0800
    Its great to know all of the things municipalities have to do to show their storm water management. I own a roofing company at <a href=“”" rel="nofollow">"></a> and we take a lot of pride into setting up barriers when we rip apart a roof or start a construction job. Any sort of debris we can catch as we clean up and didnt make it to the dumpster is a win for us. We know we make a mess in this field and want to help keep our waters and earth clean for our children and their children!
  • gavin stricker
    commented 2018-08-31 12:08:08 -0700
    Thanks for an excellent read! I’ve recently started working at and prior to that traveled a lot around the states with my parents. We had holidays in various lodges and fishing was our main activity. It’s so important to protect our wildlife!
  • Dalton Roofers
    commented 2017-09-09 06:53:42 -0700
    I really enjoy your blog! Although I own, I went to college for wildlife management, so conservation and safe management is close to my heart. Thank you for your information.
  • Brandon Swartzy
    commented 2017-08-29 14:25:16 -0700
    I just pledged to be an advocate on behalf of my employer for cleaner water in our schools out here in Arizona. It actually blows my mind that such a huge problem even exists in our society today. How could this be allowed to happen in the first place?? Our children are the future of our country. We have to make sure they are healthy first and foremost. This is absurd to me, and I will be doing my part to effect change out here in AZ to start with. I hope anyone else reading this post and my comment will make the decision to do the same! We all have a role to play, and if we don’t play ours, nothing will change.