Report reveals struggles and strategies to recover Puget Sound ecosystem

Floodplains in natural condition – Click to enlarge
Source: State of the Sound, Puget Sound Partnership

As always, the biennial State of the Sound report (PDF 60.2 mb), issued this week by the Puget Sound Partnership, reveals mixed results for efforts to protect and restore Puget Sound.

It’s been 10 years since the Washington Legislature created the Partnership with an urgent mission to restore Puget Sound to a healthy condition by the year 2020.

That 2020 deadline, which was the idea of then-Governor Chris Gregoire, has always been a double-edged sword. The clear time frame has created a sense of urgency — which was Gregoire’s goal. But now, with 2020 looming just three years away, the second edge of the sword threatens to create a sense of failure.

Everyone who has followed the issue has known from the beginning that Puget Sound would not be restored to health by 2020, so I don’t intend to belabor that point. But I’ve been asking for several years how the Puget Sound Partnership plans to finesse the “failure” into an ongoing recovery effort, without which Puget Sound could become a lifeless body of water.

“Thousands of projects have been successfully completed, and more are taking place every day,” writes PSP Executive Director Sheida Sahandy in a forward to the latest State of the Sound report. “However, investment in recovery has been a fraction of that needed to reach targets, and it is clear at this point that the work of recovering Puget Sound cannot be completed by 2020.”

Click to download the new report

Sheida repeated in her statement the same thing she has told me several times: “The work of maintaining ecosystem health, much like maintaining human health, is never ‘done,’” she writes. “This is particularly true in light of increasing systemic pressures, like population growth, water acidification and temperatures changes.”

I understand that Partnership staffers are working on a transition strategy to handle the looming 2020 deadline, but I have not heard what they plan to do. One idea is a major overhaul of all the ecosystem indicators, making them better markers for ecosystem health. It’s something many of the scientists have wanted to do, given improved awareness of ecological function.

But if the original indicators were abandoned, we would lose the sense of continuity gained over the past decade. Besides, that would disrupt the latest effort to develop and effectuate “implementation strategies,” which are aimed directly at improving the existing indicators. (Check out the stories in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.)

The simplest idea would be to change the date of 2020 to one or more dates in the future, perhaps with greater thought given to the costs and practicality of meeting the deadline. The original goals were somewhat arbitrary, often referred to as “aspirational” rather than practical. Perhaps the Partnership will adopt an approach somewhere between — with some new indicators, some revised indicators and new dates for those that seem to be good indicators as they are.

While the problem with the year 2020 can be managed, the more serious matter is funding the restoration so that real progress can be made in areas where the ecosystem is in decline. Protecting areas that are still functioning well is widely accepted as the top priority, but protection strategies have been somewhat hit and miss. Improving the monitoring effort to measure the changes is more important than ever.

“We must be willing to conduct an honest, clear-eyed review of where we are and where we are headed,” states a letter from the Puget Sound Leadership Council, the governing body of the Partnership. “Course corrections must be identified and implemented soon to get Puget Sound on an acceptable recovery trajectory. The Puget Sound Partnership is ready to work with all of our partners to improve our own efforts in the recovery endeavor.”

The Leadership Council identifies four overriding problems:

  1. “We are not investing at a level necessary to achieve recovery. We simply have not prioritized Puget Sound recovery at a level that results in adequate spending on restoration and protection projects.”
  2. “Too few people understand that Puget Sound is in trouble. We must do a better job of providing credible, hard-hitting information to our citizenry, whom we are confident cares deeply about Puget Sound and will demand a recovery effort that is successful.”
  3. “While we have appropriately focused much on restoration projects, we have not focused enough on programs designed to protect what we have. We must support our local governments and state and federal agencies as they go about the extraordinarily difficult task of preventing projects and activities that will harm the Sound.”
  4. “We have to ramp up our effort to keep pace with our booming economy. It has been reported that 1,000 people a week are moving into the Puget Sound basin. That means housing, roads, and other supportive infrastructure, which all have the potential to destroy habitat, degrade water quality, reduce stream flows, and lower groundwater tables.”

As I reported this week for the Puget Sound Institute, the Leadership Council is working with Gov. Jay Inslee to instill a greater sense of urgency for the recovery of Puget Sound’s killer whales, which remain on a dangerous path to extinction. That will surely involve efforts to increase the number of chinook salmon, which are not faring well, according to the latest State of the Sound report.

The population of killer whales is one of four indicators that are going the wrong direction, getting worse instead of better. The others are:

  • The amount of forestland being converted for development in ecologically sensitive regions;
  • The quality of marine waters, as measured by dissolved oxygen and related factors; and
  • The total biomass of Pacific herring, considered an important food supply for salmon and other species.

I have to say that the Puget Sound Partnership has gotten better at presenting information about the Puget Sound ecosystem. The 2017 State of the Sound report is fairly understandable to the average reader without sacrificing the technical details necessary to understand the problems and solutions. I also like the graphics, particularly those that represent contrasting views of natural features, namely shorelines, shellfish, floodplains and stormwater runoff. I’ve copied the two floodplain graphics to the top and bottom of this page.

Funding problems are given increased attention in the latest report. Understanding what it will take to expand the protection and restoration effort is critical, especially during the era of President Trump, whose budget proposed eliminating the most important federal funding sources for Puget Sound.

The report also includes recommendations from the Puget Sound Science Panel, established by the Legislature to advise the Leadership Council on science issues. In the latest report, the Science Panel recommends moving from a focus on restoration alone to one of involving increased resilience of natural systems.

As stated by the Science Panel in the report: “The successful restoration of ecosystem functions is an important means to maintain resilience, but is not the end in itself. Resilience also relies on human capacity and ability to respond and adapt.

“Resilience focuses less on conditions as they once existed and more on managing ecosystem processes, patterns, and change to provide the ecosystem benefits we care about into the future.”

Floodplains in degraded condition – Click to enlarge
Source: State of the Sound, Puget Sound Partnership

4 thoughts on “Report reveals struggles and strategies to recover Puget Sound ecosystem

  1. Chris,
    Not only do I agree with most of what you said, but I want to applaud you for continuing for so long to keep a finger on the pulse of this issue, and summarize things in a way that those of us who don’t speak “bureaucratese” can understand. I know you have been doing this for a long time now, certainly over a decade, has it been multiple decades yet?

    As someone who has also been concerned and involved in raising awareness about Puget Sound ecosystems since long before the Puget Sound Partnership, I have some perspectives to add to your summary.

    First, I also wouldn’t belabor the 2020 deadline, except that I think that the “process” surrounding the treatment of that deadline points out some lessons. I agree that “everyone who has followed the issue has known from the beginning that Puget Sound would not be restored to health by 2020”. What does it say about the Partnership that for a decade they have continued to make the 2020 myth a part of their public outreach? To be brief, I’d say that we need a Partnership that says what it means, and means what it says. For the Partnership to be playing mind-games with its constituents is unconscionable, and illustrates that misleading “spin” was as much a part of its playbook as were restoration and protection.

    I think that many of us sighed a breath of relief when Jay Inslee appointed a new Executive Director for the Partnership. However, PSP Executive Director Sheida Sahandy’s statement that you quoted leaves a lot to be desired, “Thousands of projects have been successfully completed, and more are taking place every day…However, investment in recovery has been a fraction of that needed to reach targets, and it is clear at this point that the work of recovering Puget Sound cannot be completed by 2020.”

    That may sound good, but it is clearly just manipulative spin. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of projects have been completed if the job is not on track. And stating that the investment is a fraction of what is necessary is equally meaningless rhetoric: 8/3 is a fraction, as is 1/3. But both have very different implications. Simply saying that something is a fraction is meaningless. And it’s pretty difficult to believe that Sahandy just discovered “at this point” that 2020 is not a realistic date.

    I do agree with her that “The work of maintaining ecosystem health…is never ‘done’.” Duh! That’s why she or her predecessors should have refined their stated goals a long time ago. I know for certain that it would have been possible to for ecosystem specialists to have schooled them about that back in 2007, or any time since.

    I also think that it is essential, though seriously belated, to establish new goals, objectives, and ecosystem indicators. True, there may be a loss in continuity of indicators, but if we know that the previous indicators were poorly conceived and inadequate, some loss is warranted. And while the political indicators might see some discontinuity, scientists are really smart, and if there are data that were relevant before and after, they will be able to craft meaningful scientific continuity.

    I think that another key observation is that Fisheries scientists have been saying for decades that species-based management is obsolete, and that ecosystem management is necessary. However we continue to hear about keystone and charismatic and threatened species, and we just don’t seem to be hearing about robust and comprehensive models of ecosystem functions. It’s not like computer power hasn’t been increasing exponentially. But it seems that the will to model ecosystems, and to base our projections on such models is seriously lacking.

    Of course I understand that ecosystems are infinitely complex, and that any such modeling will just be primitive approximations. While true, that argument is only an excuse. Weather is also infinitely complex, and modeling it was one of the big drivers for the development of computers in the first place. Even when computers were in their infancy in the middle of the last century, they allowed people to predict weather better than they ever had before. Sure, the predictions are often too vague, or sometimes just plain wrong. But the point is that the computer-model based weather predictions have been far more useful and have saved far more lives and property than any other previous methodology.

    We need to embrace ecosystem modeling with that same attitude: imperfect but a big jump forward and continuously improving. Similarly, we need to formulate our goals and objectives (as well as the related public outreach) in terms of ecosystem health, not the success of keystone species or charismatic megafauna.

    I do agree that funding is a huge issue. However, no matter how much funding is available, if it is being dedicated to projects because of their “optics” rather than their ecosystem relevance, we can’t count on any real progress.

  2. I don’t think most people around Puget Sound think there is much of a problem. When I ride one of the ferries I don’t see problems – just beauty. Certainly none of the Partnership publications or talks or fact sheets are useful to the general population – most of them are dense and long and not tested for ease of reading. While the graphic about the benefits of healthy floodplains is helpful, it is buried in a 90 page document that very few will read. The folks who created it have moved along to the next task, and it does not involve extracting such helpful tidbits and using them to spread a lot of simple messages about issues and what the average citizen can do to help.

    Without that “general public” “average citizen” concern and support, the battle will be long, difficult, and with disappointing results I fear.

    And thanks much for all the coverage and perspective. There is none other anywhere throughout the Washington part of the Salish Sea.

  3. I fear that at least in South Puget Sound we are still far off the mark. There are uncontrolled sources of dioxin and PCBs entering Budd Inlet that have not been identified. After the Sediment Characterization everything came to a stop. Developments are proceeding on top of historic stream estuaries that remain in long intertidal culverts. Water quality and primary production are in the tank. We might consider taking some control back from places like the City of Olympia and resuscitating the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority.

  4. Meanwhile, the march to build a mega development on the shores of Puget Sound continues at Point Wells in Snohomish county. I can’t understand why.

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