Named after a Seattle band, the SoundGuardian is tackling environmental issues in Washington's Puget Sound. Find out how a boat is making life easier for operators.

A new high-tech research vessel is helping wastewater professionals improve the safety, scope and efficiency of water-quality monitoring efforts in Washington’s Puget Sound.

Oh, and the boat has a cool grunge-inspired moniker, too.

This past summer, scientists at King County, Washington, launched SoundGuardian, a 48-foot catamaran named loosely for the famous Seattle band Soundgarden. The $2 million boat has already let operators cut costs, increase service and spend less time on the water while boosting King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division’s regulatory compliance and monitoring programs. That’s a critical improvement, as King County’s regional wastewater conveyance and treatment system covers 34 local agencies, and serves about 424 square miles and about 1.7 million residents. It operates four wastewater plants that dump treated waste into Puget Sound — more waste than any other Washington county.

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“We get a thumbs-up from people all the time,” says Bob Kruger, environmental laboratory scientist and skipper of SoundGuardian. “There’s been a massive positive response to it.”

SoundGuardian seems to be the answer to many issues. King County’s previous research vessel, Liberty, a 43-foot former charter fishing craft, had been in service since 1980 and cost about $50,000 annually to maintain, according to Ben Budka, supervisor in the Field Science Unit of the King County Environmental Laboratory. As the county developed and expanded its water-treatment plan and responsibilities, officials realized they needed a change.

Budka said King County undertook a study that looked into several potential alternatives, including upgrading Liberty, renting a vessel, purchasing a used boat or partnering with a local university to share a watercraft. Ultimately, however, officials decided to purchase a new boat, and five years later, SoundGuardian arrived.

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“King County is conscious about getting the best value for the buck for the rate payer,” he says. “We went through quite a process to get to the point to have this boat dedicated in June.”

Although SoundGuardian’s $2 million price tag might seem steep, cost analysis indicates the boat’s operating efficiencies should offset the capital cost in about 13 years. The twin-hull aluminum catamaran, manufactured by Seattle’s Kvichak Marine Industries, has ultra-clean-burning Cummins diesel engines that use standard No. 2 diesel fuel and provide much greater fuel efficiency. Also, SoundGuardian can travel up to 31 knots versus the 13-knot top speed of Liberty, reducing staff time on the water. SoundGuardian uses Hamilton jets instead of a rudder, so it has far greater maneuverability than Liberty. In addition, it only draws 2.5 feet of water, letting it travel in depths as shallow as 3 to 4 feet. It’s equipped with state-of-the-art electronics, radar and radios, and even has a remote-operated vehicle (much like a tiny submarine) and a moon pool, which is a shaft through the boat’s bottom that lets the crew lower or raise equipment.

“It’s like night and day,” Kruger says. “You can barely tell when you start the engines, and it’s just unbelievably clean.”

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Moreover, the new boat decreased maintenance costs considerably and presents a better public image for an environmental and water-quality agency. And it’s far safer for the crew, as SoundGuardian can handle seas in up to 30 knots of wind, whereas Liberty was limited to about 20. Further, crew members no longer have to breathe diesel smoke while aboard the ship, and the vessel’s open design lets the captain communicate with crew members on the deck.

“It’s just much better for the crew,” Budka says. “And I feel like our data quality is going to be much better, too.”

Typically, SoundGuardian is operated by three to four crew members, and stops at 14 monitoring stations and maintains a marine buoy during a two-day mission covering about 40 miles. Crew members use water-quality sensors that measure water temperature and density, and levels of salinity and dissolved oxygen. The sensors also collect water samples that are subsequently tested for levels of chlorophyll, phytoplankton, zooplankton, surface bacteria and total nitrogen (including nitrates and nitrites). King County also operates a system of buoys that constantly collect water and provide readings every 15 minutes, and Budka said SoundGuardian crew members can maintain the buoys and their instrumentation much more efficiently than with the previous boat.

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“The reason we’re doing this is so our decision-makers have the right kind of data to make good decisions about policies,” Kruger says. “(SoundGuardian) allows us to have a way broader quiver, I’d say, of tools at our beck and call. We’re pretty much always going to deliver the samples on the days we need to.”

In addition, SoundGuardian helps with other environmental efforts, such as shoreline or eelgrass surveys, and can respond to environmental emergencies, such as fish kills, beach erosion, algae blooms and illegal spills or dumping. Further, it’s stout enough to perform maintenance and support duties, such as installing a new marine buoy, for which the county previously had to hire other boats.

Of course, people often ask about the vessel’s cool name. King County’s Water Treatment Division held a contest through which the public could submit and then vote on names. SoundGuardian, submitted by Bruce Kessler, was the winner.

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“We thought initially it was kind of a cute, funny name,” Kruger says, “but it’s actually been a really great thing for the county and the boat, because it was sort of named after Soundgarden, which is a Seattle band, and the media picked up on that.”

In fact, the band did, too, and members actually attended the boat’s dedication, further boosting publicity for SoundGuardian.

“It’s a really good-looking boat,” Kruger said. “The crew loves it, and the captain loves it. Whenever we take folks out, they’re just amazed at how great it is.”

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