Tag Archives: Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee

Report: It’s time to shift the deadlines for Puget Sound restoration

Restoring Puget Sound to a healthy condition by the year 2020 is an unrealistic goal that needs to be addressed by the Puget Sound Partnership, according to the latest performance audit by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee.

Structure

It’s a issue I’ve often asked about when talking to people both inside and outside the Puget Sound Partnership. What’s the plan? Are we just going to wait until the year 2020 and say, “Ah shucks; I guess we couldn’t reach the goal.”?

Puget Sound Partnership, the organization created by the Legislature to coordinate the restoration of Puget Sound, is on the right track in many ways, according to the preliminary audit report. But the Partnership needs to address several “structural issues” — including coming up with realistic goals for restoration.

Progress in restoring Puget Sound is measured by 37 different indicators of ecological health. These are measures of water quality, fish and wildlife populations, human health and so on. For many of the indicators, an ambitious target was set — specific numbers to be reached by 2020. That’s just 13 years after the Partnership was created.

“Puget Sound recovery will not be complete by 2020,” states the preliminary report. “Compared to other large recovery efforts, the 13-year recovery timeframe and related planning cycles are short… The Partnership should submit a plan to the Legislature that identifies and addresses needed revisions to the planning and recovery timeframes.”

Puget Sound's recovery time frames are too short, according to a new report. Graphic: JLARC staff
Puget Sound’s recovery timeframes are too short, report says. // Graphic: JLARC staff

The report points out that other major ecosystem recovery efforts have longer timeframes, if they have any at all. San Francisco Bay has set goals for 35 years; Chesapeake Bay is listed at 42 years and beyond; and the Great Lakes and Florida Everglades have “ongoing” timeframes.

The problem is the timing, not the targets themselves, according to the report, which notes, “The Partnership’s Science Panel has stated that recovery goals may be achieved in a longer timeframe.”

Out of 37 indicators, four are likely to be reached by 2020, according to the 2015 State of the Sound report. Six others are at least moving in the right direction. But four indicators show mixed results, six are not changing, and five reveal that conditions are getting worse. For the remaining 12 indicators, not enough data is available to draw any conclusions.

While these trends don’t instill much confidence, some indicators have turned around since the Partnership began to lead the restoration effort. It’s interesting that habitat conditions are improving in many places, yet indicators for fish and wildlife populations are not doing so well.

I raised questions about why the targets were pegged to the year 2020 when I worked on a series of articles called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” for the Kitsap Sun in 2014. My final story asked the question, “What does the future hold?”

Bill Ruckelshaus, the first chairman of the Partnership’s Leadership Council, said he always had misgivings about setting a firm date for the indicators.

“We knew almost from the beginning that those deadlines are not achievable,” Bill told me seven years into the program. “It is a problem I’ve been dealing with ever since environmental laws began flowing out of the federal government.”

Puget Sound Partnership needs to account for all restoration projects, report says. Graphic: JLARC staff
Puget Sound Partnership needs to account for all restoration projects, report says. // Graphic: JLARC staff

Ruckelshaus was the first administrator of the Environment Protection Agency in 1970. Deadlines set by Congress required that air pollution be largely cleaned up by 1975 and that water pollution be stopped by 1983, he said.

“I remember testifying that if we dropped everything we were doing in the federal government, including defense, that we still couldn’t get it done. It was dooming us to failure.”

Ruckelshaus said he feels the same way about the 2020 deadline.

“It will cause people living in Puget Sound to get discouraged,” he told me two years ago. “And I think that is a huge problem in this country, the lack of trust. We are on a path toward improvement, and we will see results over time.”

Phil Rockefeller of Bainbridge Island was a state senator when he helped craft the legislation creating the Partnership. He said the governor at the time, Chris Gregoire, insisted on the 2020 date — “to impart a sense of urgency.” Everybody knew that the work of protection and restoration can never stop, even if the 2020 targets could be met, he told me.

Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Partnership, inherited the 2020 deadline when she took the job in 2014. Her definition of success was to get the indicators to show improvement by 2020, and she made a point that cannot be overstated:

“Just the fact that things haven’t gotten worse is the result of a lot of work,” she said. “You’re not seeing what would have happened if we had not undertaken this effort.”

Sheida appeared before the JLARC on Jan. 4, when the preliminary findings were discussed with the committee made up of both state senators and representatives. Sheida said she agreed with nearly everything presented by the JLARC staff. The Partnership’s formal response to the audit is still to come, and the report won’t be final until approved by the committee in September.

Monitoring of the Puget Sound ecosystem needs improvement, report says. Graphic: JLARC staff
Monitoring of the Puget Sound ecosystem needs improvement, report says.
Graphic: JLARC staff

Also in terms of timing, the preliminary audit recommends less frequent updates of two important reports from the Partnership. One is the Action Agenda, which spells out actions for recovery. The other is the Science Work Plan, which describes research needs to be undertaken. Both plans are now scheduled every two years, although most major ecosystem programs nationwide operate under five-year plans.

Changing the Partnership’s two-year planning cycles to four years will allow the staff to focus on specific needs and projects rather than continually planning for the next report, according to the audit report. Legislation to accomplish that has been proposed in House Bill 1121, which will be reviewed tomorrow (Thursday) by the House Environment Committee.

Other recommendations listed in the audit:

  1. Redefine the targets: In place of a final 2020 target with interim targets along the way, the Partnership should update targets with both short-term and long-term goals. JLARC staffers recommend that a plan with proposed changes be submitted to the Legislature by December, which would allow the 2020 deadline to be changed next year.
  2. Expand the list of actions: The Action Agenda focuses on so-called near-term actions, which last two to four years. It does not describe how ongoing activities by state agencies contribute to recovery, nor does it describe long-term actions by federal agencies, tribes, local government or other parties. “As a result, the full scope of actions and costs is unknown,” the report says. The Office of Financial Management should work with the Partnership to develop a plan to create an inventory of all recovery actions, according to the audit report, which recommends submitting the plan to the Legislature by December.
  3. Improve ecosystem monitoring: Without adequate monitoring, it is not possible to know whether actions had their intended effects or if progress is being made toward recovery. The Partnership’s current monitoring plan does not fully report on all actions, nor is there a link between actions and recovery goals — although this is beginning to change with Implementation Strategies. (Check out the description of Implementation Strategies in a story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.) The audit recommends that a new monitoring plan be submitted to the Legislature by December.

One other area of concern is the carrot-and-stick approach, which remains part of the state law under which the Partnership operates — even though this provision is essentially ignored. To comply with the law, the report says the Partnership should evaluate the actions of partner organizations — which could include agencies, local governments and private organizations. Partners that make outstanding progress should be rewarded with preferential funding. Partners that fail to comply with their responsibilities should be identified and brought into compliance or else face the loss of state funding.

From talking to folks within the Partnership, I believe there is a reluctance to use either the carrot or the stick. Preferential funding could be seen as favoritism. Calling out entities that fail to do their jobs could alienate those most needed in the recovery effort.

I’m not sure how much discussion has gone into this issue. But if the Partnership is convinced that the carrot-and-stick approach would be ineffective, it seems like this provision should be removed from the law, allowing the Partnership to be in compliance.

Puget Partnership sees another leadership change

I have to admit that I was surprised when Tony Wright, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, announced last week that he would soon be leaving to return to private consulting. But I suppose I have only myself to blame.

I went back and looked at former Gov. Chris Gregoire’s announcement (PDF 127 kb) of Tony’s appointment back in July. She clearly stated: “I thank Normandeau Associates for graciously loaning Tony, and appreciate Tony’s willingness to serve in this role.”

I don’t know why, but I never asked how long he was committed to staying, and nobody else brought up the issue.

I became distracted by more than a few people who talked about Tony’s prospects for staying in the post regardless of the governor’s election. He was seen as a person who could fit into a Republican administration if Rob McKenna were elected, and Jay Inslee had no immediate plans to shake up the agency. (Kitsap Sun, Nov. 15, 2012)

Behind the scenes, Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the partnership’s Leadership Council, was pushing for Tony to stay on, as she confirmed to me last week as I prepared to write the story about Tony Wright’s departure. (Kitsap Sun, Jan. 18, 2013)

Neither Wright nor the governor emphasized the short-term nature of the job “which would make me a lame duck the day I started,” Tony explained to me.

So we now come to the understanding that another director of the partnership must be hired. Martha says the new hire must possess many of the qualities that Tony Wright brought to the job. Here’s how she put it:

“Tony was the right guy at the right time. He got people’s attention, and in some ways he articulates how to get the work done. Tony can talk to anyone, from the oil industry to the environmental community. The next leader has to have that same kind of fluency.”

The first director of the partnership, David Dicks, put the fledgling agency on the map. He reached out to communities across the state and got everyone involved. He worked with the Legislature. But he was not as focused on the inner workings of the partnership, and some mandated deadlines were missed. Some financial accounting mistakes were made.

The second director, Gerry O’Keefe, focused intently on getting the staff up to speed on the work products demanded of the agency, and they were numerous — from ecosystem indicators to a Science Update to a new Action Agenda.

Tony helped complete work on the Action Agenda and reorganized the staff while reaching outside the agency to plan a strategy for getting the work done at the federal, state and local levels. The agency’s organizational chart (PDF 680 kb) shows clearer lines of authority, with much of the staff focused on implementing the various plans.

Still, the partnership has not fully developed the administrative structure envisioned by the Legislature, according to a new report by staff of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee. What is needed is a clear understanding of what a healthy Puget Sound would look like, along with measurable goals to achieve that condition and an accounting of how various actions can contribute to those goals. See today’s Kitsap Sun or review the draft JLARC report for yourself.

The Legislative mandate sounds simple enough, but the job becomes exceedingly complex as one delves into it. First, there’s the question of what a health Puget Sound would look like.

Joe Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society, who chaired the Puget Sound Science Panel last year, once compared a healthy ecosystem to a healthy person. Do you want the person to be healthy enough to walk around and hopefully avoid a heart attack, or do you want him to be prepared to run a marathon?

The Puget Sound ecosystem will never be as vigorous and dynamic as it was in its “youth” before development, and perhaps avoiding collapse is the first step on the way to a healthy ecosystem. This issue deserves a wider discussion among the people who live here. What are our “alternative futures” for Puget Sound? Can we discuss what it will take to change the present course to varying degrees?

We also need a greater understanding about the connections between land and water at various depths, the behavioral relationships among species, the energy pathways in the food web and much more. Scientists are beginning to come to grips with these issues, but the science must make its way into policy decisions and become accessible to you and me.

The “links” between actions and progress toward a healthy ecosystem could be better understood, and researchers need to measure the success of restoration projects so that funding agencies can replicate what is working.

Puget Sound Partnership is making progress. If the legislative mandate does not recognize the complexity of the task, maybe it is time to refine our expectations written into law. Maybe it is time to have a broad discussion about what the partnership has accomplished and what is yet to be done.

It is equally important to remember, however, that the partnership is a coordinating agency. The work itself gets done by numerous government agencies and by many other groups — including what people do in their own backyards.