Puget Sound restoration: two steps forward, one back — or vice versa?

Measuring the progress of Puget Sound restoration is a very difficult thing to do.

Vital signs

Millions of dollars have been spent to restore streams, wetlands, estuaries and shorelines. Millions more have been spent to improve stormwater systems and to clean up contaminated sediments.

At the same time, billions of dollars have been spent by commercial and residential developers in the Puget Sound region. The results are ongoing changes to the landscape and unknown alterations to ecosystems.

In the overall scheme of things, are we taking two steps forward and one step back, or is it two steps back and one step forward?

Gov and Leg

Puget Sound Partnership’s biennial “State of the Sound Report,” released this week, attempts to tell us how things are going in the effort to restore Puget Sound to a healthy condition. Progress is being made in restoring habitat, according to a news release about the report, but “measures for chinook salmon, Southern Resident Killer Whales, herring and other native species show a decline, and local improvements in water quality still don’t add up to improvements at the regional scale.”

Community

“These mixed results are the reality of working in a complex ecosystem that is under tremendous pressures right now,” said Sheida Sahandy, the partnership’s executive director. “It’s why we need to make smart, timely investments in our partners’ hard work to restore and protect habitat, prevent stormwater pollution and reopen shellfish beds,”

Puget Sound Partnership has developed 37 ecosystem indicators for tracking progress. They are organized under 21 categories called the Puget Sound “vital signs.” If you want understand the latest information, you must look to the new “Report on the Puget Sound Vital Signs (PDF 9.9 mb).

Key findings, as reported in the news release:

  • Four indicators are meeting — or nearly meeting — regionally identified targets, including those related to inventorying septic systems, slowing forest loss, and two measurements showing improvements in the quality of marine sediment.
  • All indicators for habitat restoration are making incremental progress.
  • None of the indicators for species or food-web health are making progress.
  • While there has been local-level progress in some indicators, the results do not add up to regional progress. For example, while marine water quality is relatively good in some bays (making them safe for harvesting shellfish and for swimming), other bays have very poor water quality and are not meeting standards.

Pulse logo

I believe these vital signs can help us understand the functions of the Puget Sound ecosystem and give us an idea about the progress in restoration. I even used them as a broad outline for my two-year investigation into the health of Puget Sound and the species found in the region. If you haven’t done so, I urge you to take a look at the series, “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”

At the same time, these 37 indicators often fail to capture many of the nuances of Puget Sound health, such as species distribution, population dynamics and primary productivity — all aspects of ecosystem health.

A pod of Southern Resident orcas travels south past Point No Point in North Kitsap early this afternoon. Typically, the three Southern Resident pods move into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon in October, but this year they have stayed away until now. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
Southern Residents in Puget Sound
Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

Southern Resident killer whales, for example, are now fewer than when the ecosystem indicators were approved. That could be related to the number of chinook salmon — the orca’s primary prey — which also are in decline. But what are the problems facing the chinook? Lack of spawning habitat? Increased predation by seals and other marine mammals? Not enough forage fish, such as herring, surf smelt and sand lance? In turn, what is limiting the growth of the forage fish populations? The amount or right type of plankton to eat, spawning habitat, predation, or something else?

It is often said that the ongoing development of Puget Sound is damaging the ecosystem faster than it is being restored. But I have not seen convincing evidence to show which way things are going. The vital signs indicators are not adequate to answer this question. Lagging indicators — especially population counts — don’t tell the whole story. But one thing is certain: Without the investment we have all made in Puget Sound restoration, conditions would be far worse than they are today.

Over the past few years, the Puget Sound Partnership is getting better at establishing priorities that will make the most difference. But it is still mind-boggling to think of the number of places that have been degraded over 150 years of development, all needing work to bring things back to a functioning part of the Puget Sound ecosystem.

Getting the priorities right and getting everyone working together is an enormous challenge. Coordination must involve federal, state, tribal and local governments, private businesses and conservation groups. That was why the Legislature created the Puget Sound Partnership and issued a special mandate. It seems to me that the people leading the restoration effort understand their responsibility.

It was nice to see a recognition of this coordination problem by U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer and Denny Heck, who introduced the Save Our Sound Act, designed to coordinate federal actions with those of the Puget Sound Partnership, which tries to involve all segments of society. This SOS bill is now supported by all of Washington state’s congressional delegation. Check out a summary of the bill on Heck’s congressional website; read the story by Tristan Baurick in the Kitsap Sun; or review the op-ed piece by Heck and Kilmer in The News Tribune.

The role of local governments in the restoration effort cannot be over-stated. As restoration continues, damage from ongoing development must be limited. Concepts of “no net loss” and “best-management practices” are important — but the key is to locate development where it will do the least ecosystem damage, then use construction techniques that will cause the least disruption of ecological functions.

Jenifer McIntyre studies the effects of stormwater at the Washington State University Puyallup Research & Extension Center. Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun
Jenifer McIntyre studies the effects of stormwater at the Washington State University Puyallup Research & Extension Center. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

Breakthroughs in scientific understanding and new solutions to old problems can make a big difference. Jen McIntyre of Washington State University finally published her findings about the effects of stormwater on coho salmon. More importantly, she and her colleagues revealed how to solve the problem by filtering the stormwater through compost — or essentially the natural material found on the forest floor. The study was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology (PDF 338 kb).

I’ve talked about these findings several times in the past, including an expanded story about stormwater in the “Pulse” series in July of last year. For stories written since the report was published, see Tristan Baurick’s piece in the Kitsap Sun or Sandi Doughton’s story in the Seattle Times or the news release by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Development regulations by local government have always been a weak link in the effort to restore Puget Sound. I have been discouraged by the lack of progress in some cities and counties. In the face of uncertain science, it has been too easy for local officials to do the minimum required by state government then turn around and blame the state when local residents complain about the higher costs of development.

On the other hand, I am encouraged that more and more local officials are taking scientific studies to heart, learning how to judge scientific uncertainty and taking actions to help save the ecosystem. Stormwater regulations have been a bitter pill to swallow for many local officials, but creative approaches, such as I described in the “Pulse” series could be one of the best things that local government can do. Another major role of local government is to protect and restore shorelines, about which I will have more to say in the near future. (“Water Ways, Aug. 15, 20115.)

Overall, when I see the beauty of Puget Sound and consider the combined energy of thousands of people who really care about this waterway, I can’t help but remain optimistic that the effort to save Puget Sound is on the right track.

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