Sound Waters University: turning education into action

A popular one-day university for all things environmental is returning to South Whidbey in February 2018, but it comes with a slight wrinkle.

Sound Waters University is not allowing walk-in registration on the day of the event because of over capacity, organizers said. The event, held at South Whidbey High School, has risen in popularity since it began in the early 1990s. Attendance has grown from 150 in 2000 to 668 people at the conference in February 2017.

The 2018 event, which will include 60 informative classes and presentations on topics like the natural world and the fragile environment of the Salish Sea, is from 8:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. on Feb. 3, 2018, at South Whidbey High School.

Prospective attendees must register in advance online at www.soundwater when it opens to the public on Dec. 30. Registration ends on Jan. 24.

Anne Cushing Post, cochair of publicity, encouraged people to sign up sooner rather than later because classes are filled on a first-come, first-serve basis.

She added that the event is ultimately about translating education to action.

“The more we educate, the more tools they have at their disposal to continue to cherish and protect our Puget Sound backyard,” Cushing Post said.

Over 50 percent of the classes are new this year and range in variety: whales, adventures at sea, habitat restoration, birds, coastal geology, earthquake preparedness, landscapes and gardens, citizen science, marine alternative energy, photography and more. No prior knowledge regarding these subjects is required.

The event kicks off with a keynote speaker. Dr. Florian Graner, a world-renowned research diver and marine cinematographer who has lived on Whidbey Island since 2006, will present “The Salish Sea-A Sense of Place.” Graner will share portions of his recent film, “Beneath the Salish Sea.” The film is meant to enhance humanity’s awareness of how it fits into the greater scheme of life on Earth, how to better understand people’s surrounding areas, humanity’s impact on those areas and the steps necessary to lessen than impact and become “true stewards” of the environment, according to a press release.

Dr. Paul McElhany and Barbara Bennett will present on ocean acidification in the Pacific Northwest. They’ll start by providing basic information about ocean acidification and how it relates to Puget Sound. McElhany, a research ecologist at the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, said decreases in pH levels in the Puget Sound is causing “big” biological effects on things, particularly shellfish, mussels, oysters and dungeness crab.

It is also detrimental to the food supply for whales.

While not all presentations are interactive, McElhany and Bennett’s will be. They hope to start a dialogue with attendees to figure out how citizens can best support research into Puget Sound’s marine acidification developments. Participants will discuss potential strategies to engage the public in testing pH levels in local waters and collecting plankton samples to investigation connections between shifts in chemistry and changes in marine populations.

“This is building the story so that people who have an interest can understand the dynamics, understand what the research is addressing and getting ready for the fact that we’ll eventually be recruiting,” Bennett said, an environmental education who was formally the program coordinator of the Island County Beach Watchers until the program’s closure in December 2015.

Hugh Shipman, a coastal geologist with the Washington Department of Ecology’s Shorelands and Environmental Assistance program, will present on the formation and flux of beaches on Whidbey and how to identify differences between them. He’ll cover everything from bluffs to erosion and landslides.

“I’m going to basically talk about how beaches work,” Shipman said. “…The beach is a fundamental aspect of the of the island. I hope what I’m able to do is give people a better of sense of why it looks the way it does and what makes it special and why it changes.”

Shipman is a longtime presenter at the one-day university. He keeps coming back because he enjoys the atmosphere and seeing interested people join together for the betterment of the environment.

Another presenter, Washington Sea Grant Coastal Hazard Specialist Ian Miller, will provide an update on the Elwha Dam since it was removed in August 2014. It was the largest removal project in U.S. history.

Miller, in his second year presenting at the event, will talk about the physical and ecological changes observed in the nearshore zone during and after the dam removal on the Elwha River.

Some of the results from the dam removal have been surprising, Miller said.

“We saw some significant changes in ways that we expected, but we also saw a lot of cases and a lot of organisms that responded positively to the dam removal,” Miller said. “There was some fear going into the project from the standpoint of the coastal ecosystem that there would be some fairly negative impacts.”