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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.