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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Recession pushes and pulls on Puget Sound cleanup

October 21st, 2010 by cdunagan

In some ways, the recession we are going through has been very good for Puget Sound, at least if we’re talking about ecosystem restoration.

Gov. Chris Gregoire spies an eagle flying over Oakland Bay during Friday’s media tour.
Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall

In an effort to stimulate the economy and create jobs, Congress appropriated lots of money for projects that were ready or nearly ready to be built. The Puget Sound Partnership lists 614 projects with a price tag of $460 million since 2008. An estimated 15,640 jobs were created in the process, according to the PSP.

But the recession also helped another way. It turns out that when restoration and public-works projects were put out to bid, most of them came in well under their original estimates. Contractors apparently needed the work so badly that they were willing to cut their profit margins and compete hard for the available work. That freed up money for additional projects.

On Friday, Gov. Chris Gregoire led a media tour to some of the projects being built with special federal and state appropriations. One was the Belfair sewage treatment plant, designed to remove nitrogen from Hood Canal to address the low-oxygen problem. Her message was that Puget Sound restoration must not be placed on the back burner until the recession is over.

I quoted her in a story I wrote for Saturday’s Kitsap Sun:

“We are in the hardest economic problem since the deep depression, but we cannot take a recess; we cannot take time out.”

While more restoration projects are getting done, Gregoire is struggling with a state budget crisis unlike anything in our lifetimes. Normal separations between funds for capital construction and funds for general operations are beginning to erode. For example, shifts of money have been made from the Public Works Trust Fund and Model Toxics Control Account.

Gregoire is saying she must find a way to fund critical environmental efforts — even if that means moving some efforts to the back burner. So far, I have yet to hear anyone say which environmental programs will get to play freeze tag, but that may be coming.

On Oct. 6, Gregoire called together the heads of our state’s natural resource agencies as part of her ongoing initiative called Government Management Accountability and Performance, or GMAP. Each agency head was expected to discuss their goals and performance measurements with respect to Puget Sound restoration. (It was clear the governor was not satisfied with the level of detail provided by the Puget Sound Partnership. See YouTube video at 0:10:38)

At the end of the forum, Gregoire stressed that all agencies need to get out of their individual “silos” and coordinate together for the good of Puget Sound. For one thing, she said, they should rally to address stormwater as the top priority. See the YouTube video at 1:12:53:

“I come away from here with the understanding that — and I knew it beforehand, but I want to emphasize it — as we go into this stressed cycle of limited moneys, we’ve got to, for the moment, put the money where … the biggest results can be achieved. That means we cannot sprinkle.

“ We have got to take limited resources and put as much as we can where the greatest threat is. In my opinion right now … it is stormwater; it is runoff. If we don’t get a handle on that for Puget Sound, we are not going to make the progress that we have set out to achieve, so I’m asking you all to work very hard with that as a priority… If we could really emphasize that as we work through what are very troubled economic times we’ll come out making continued progress.

“Others are kind of giving up and saying you have to put everything on hold. I don’t buy that. You can’t put Puget Sound on hold. You can’t. It will just deteriorate. What you will have to make up by putting it on hold will eat too much human and financial resources and take too much time. But I do know that we have to do things differently. We don’t have a choice, so I’m asking you to put a greater emphasis in coordinating with all of you on stormwater as we move forward.”

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2 Responses to “Recession pushes and pulls on Puget Sound cleanup”

  1. BlueLight Says:

    “Gregoire is saying she must find a way to fund critical environmental efforts — even if that means moving some efforts to the back burner. So far, I have yet to hear anyone say which environmental programs will get to play freeze tag, but that may be coming.”

    Actually, Washington State’s efforts in this area are – by and large – voluntary. Let’s take the Endangered Species Act, for example. The law designates two federal agencies as administrators of the ESA: US Fish and Wildlife and NOAA. The act allows these agencies to enter into shared-responsibility arrangements with state governments.

    From the Act: “In furtherance of the purposes of this Act, the Secretary is authorized to enter into a cooperative
    agreement in accordance with this section with any State
    which establishes and maintains an adequate and active program
    for the conservation of endangered species and threatened species.”

    States are enticed into this “cooperative” role by federal funding opportunities. Again, from the Act: “The Secretary is authorized to
    provide financial assistance to any State, through its respective
    State agency, which has entered into a cooperative agreement pursuant
    to subsection (c) of this section to assist in development of
    programs for the conservation of endangered and threatened species
    or to assist in monitoring the status of candidate species”

    However, even from the start, states opting to take on this role are responsible for providing a share of the funding. From the Act: Such cooperative agreements shall provide for (A) the actions
    to be taken by the Secretary and the States; (B) the benefits
    that are expected to be derived in connection with the conservation
    of endangered or threatened species; (C) the estimated cost of these
    actions; and (D) the share of such costs to be bore by the Federal
    Government and by the States; except that—
    (i) the Federal share of such program costs shall not exceed
    75 percent of the estimated program cost stated in the
    agreement

    As we have seen, the promise of mana-from-heaven federal money led our state and many local governments to assume duties relative to the ESA. Exercising this option came with a price tag, but that price was deemed acceptable when times were good and money was flowing unchecked.

    Today; however, that is not the case. Citizens are struggling to maintain viable schools, functioning infrastructure, fire, police, etc. Meanwhile, the cost of these “cooperative” agreements with the feds has skyrocketed over the years. It may be that the taxpayers of this state can no longer afford to have our state government assume (and commit state resources to) optional administrative duties within federal programs.

    By the way, this optional assumption of responsibility and costs also applies to the federal Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act and others to which the State has entered into voluntary “cooperative” agreements and expenditures.

    Perhaps the best thing the citizens of Washington can do for the long-term health of our social institutions (schools, roads, etc) is to opt out of these arrangements and tell the federal government to administer their programs themselves.

  2. BlueLight Says:

    David Dicks might have been better able to respond to the Governor’s questions (and justify his agency’s existence) if he’d had a skeptical press holding him (and the PSP) accountable. He doesn’t. And his stammering non-answers are part his fault, part the governor’s fault and part the press’ fault.

    His definition of success seems to be whether or not his agency receives federal and state funding.

    That is not the public’s definition.

    Of course, absent a questioning press (15,640 jobs, indeed!) it is unlikely anything will change (other than the amount of money going to the “effort”).

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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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