Two days before Donald Trump became president, the Puget Sound
Federal Task Force released a draft of the federal action plan for
the recovery of Puget Sound.
The Trump transition raises uncertainty about the future of this
plan, but at least the incoming administration has a document to
work with, as described by Steve Kopecky of the White House Council
on Environmental Quality. (See
Water Ways, Dec. 22.)
Speaking last month before the Puget Sound Partnership’s
Leadership Council, Kopecky acknowledged that the plan would go
through many changes over time, with or without a new
“That being said, the first one is probably the most powerful,”
he said. “It is the model that new folks are going to use, so we’re
trying to make sure that we have a good solid foundation model
before we all collectively go out the door.”
One of the goals established by the Puget Sound Partnership is
to improve freshwater quality in 30 streams throughout the region,
as measured by the Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity, or B-IBI.
Simply described, B-IBI is a numerical measure of stream health
as determined by the number and type of bottom-dwelling creatures
that live in a stream. My latest article published in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound describes in some detail how this index works.
Here’s the basic idea:
“High-scoring streams tend to have a large variety of ‘bugs,’ as
researchers often call them, lumping together the benthic species.
Extra points are given for species that cannot survive without
clean, cool water. On the other hand, low-scoring streams are
generally dominated by a few species able to survive under the
Because benthic invertebrates have evolved over time with salmon
and other fish, many of these important “bugs” are primary prey for
the fish that we value highly. Said another way, “healthy” streams
— as measured by B-IBI — tend to be those that are not only cool
and clean but also very good habitats for salmon.
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.
A draft of a Federal Action Plan to protect and restore Puget
Sound is scheduled for completion before Donald Trump takes office
on Jan. 20, according to officials involved in developing the
The plan will help demonstrate that Washington state and nine
federal agencies are aligned in their efforts to recover one of the
most important waterways in the nation, according to leaders
involved in a new Federal Puget Sound Task Force.
The task force was created in October by President Obama, who
essentially elevated Puget Sound to a high-priority ecosystem, on
par with Chesapeake Bay, the Florida Everglades and the Great
Lakes, according to a
news release from the White House.
memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed among federal agencies
replaces a less structured MOU that was scheduled to expire next
year. The new agreement calls for a five-year action plan to be
completed by June 1, but a draft should be ready by Jan. 18,
according to Peter Murchie, who manages Puget Sound issues for the
Environmental Protection Agency and chairs the task force.
“Part of the goal is to have something in front of the
transition folks … that they can then shepherd through individual
budget and prioritization processes that they’ll be doing with new
leadership,” Murchie told the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership
Council two weeks ago.
Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the Puget Sound Leadership
Council, has always spoken with a voice of both reason and passion
while guiding the Puget Sound Partnership in its efforts to restore
Puget Sound to health.
Yesterday and today, Martha attended her final meeting as a
member of the Leadership Council, the governing body of the
Partnership charged with coordinating Puget Sound ecosystem
While listening to presentations on technical and financial
issues, Martha always seems to quickly focus discussions on the key
issues of recovery while asking how to help average people
understand the complex problems.
As a reporter, I’ve enjoyed speaking with Martha, who not only
answers my questions in a direct and revealing way but also
indulges my curiosity. Our discussions often take tangents onto
other interesting subjects, sometimes leading to new stories or old
stories told in a new way.
Nobody doubts Martha’s love of Puget Sound, expressed by her
willingness to spend countless unpaid hours working for a better
Puget Sound Partnership continues to struggle in its efforts to
pull everyone together in a unified cause of protecting and
restoring Puget Sound.
This week, the Puget Sound Leadership Council, which oversees
the partnership, adopted the latest Puget Sound Action
Agenda, which spells out the overall strategies as well as the
specific research, education and restoration projects to save Puget
The goal of restoring Puget Sound to health by 2020 — a date
established by former Gov. Chris Gregoire — was never actually
realistic, but nobody has ever wanted to change the date. The
result has been an acknowledgement that restoration work will go on
long after 2020, even though restoration targets remain in place
for that date just four years away.
A letter to be signed by all members of the Leadership Council
begins to acknowledge the need for a new date.
“As the scope and depth of our undertaking expands along with
our understanding, federal and state funding is on the decline,”
the letter states. “We’re increasingly forced into a position where
we’re not only competing amongst ourselves for a pool of funding
wholly insufficient to accomplish what needs doing, but we are also
feeling the impacts of cuts to programs supporting other societal
priorities as well. If we continue at our historic pace of
recovery, which is significantly underfunded, we cannot expect to
achieve our 2020 recovery targets.”
This is not necessarily an appeal for money to support the Puget
Sound Partnership, although funds for the program have been
slipping. But the partnership has always been a coordinator of
projects by local, state and federal agencies, nonprofit groups and
research institutions — where the on-the-ground work is done. That
much larger pot of money for Puget Sound efforts also is
“These are threats that compel us to action, fueled by our
devotion to place,” the letter continues. “We at the Puget Sound
Partnership, along with our local, tribal and regional partners,
have a vision of a resilient estuary that can help moderate the
increasing pressures of a changing world.
“How we aim to accomplish our vision is found in this updated
Action Agenda. For the next two years, this is the focused,
measurable and scientifically grounded roadmap forming the core of
the region’s work between now and 2020 and beyond.”
The newly approved Action Agenda is the outcome of a greater
effort to reach out to local governments and organizations involved
in the restoration of Puget Sound. Priorities for restoration
projects were developed at the local level with an emphasis on
meeting the priorities and strategies developed in previous Action
The latest document is divided into two sections to separate
overall planning from the work involved parties would like to
accomplish over the next two years. The two parts are called the
“Comprehensive Plan” and the “Implementation Plan.”
As determined several years ago, upcoming efforts known as
“near-term actions” are focused on three strategic initiatives:
Stormwater: Prevent pollution from urban
stormwater runoff, which causes serious problems for marine life
Habitat: Protect and restore habitat needed
for species to survive and thrive.
Shellfish: Protect and recover shellfish beds,
including areas harvested by commercial growers and recreational
Actions are focused on 29 specific strategies and 109
substrategies that support these ideas. Projects, which may be
viewed in a list at the front of the “Implementation Plan,” are
aligned with the substrategies.
“This leaner, scientifically grounded strategic recovery plan is
a call to action,” the letter from the Leadership Council states.
“We know that our restoration efforts are failing to compensate for
the thousands of cuts we continue to inflict on the landscape as
our population grows and habitat gives way to more humans.
“We know that salmon, steelhead and orcas — the magnificent
beings that in many ways define this corner of the world — are
struggling to persist as we alter the land and waters to which
they’re adapted,” the letter concludes. “And we know that warming
temperatures and acidifying seawater are moving us toward a future
that we don’t fully understand and are not entirely prepared for.
Hard decisions are ahead, and we’re past the point where additional
delay is acceptable.”
Waterfront property owners are a special class of people, and I
mean that in a good way.
When it comes to sensitive shoreline habitat, they are the front
lines of protection. When storms cause property damage, they see
more than their share — and they pay handsomely for the privilege
in both the cost of property and taxes.
As I interviewed people and conducted research for a series of
stories on shoreline armoring, I came into contact with dozens of
shoreline property owners who were learning about the latest
science on the nearshore environment. They wanted to know how to
better manage their property. Some were contemplating removing
bulkheads where the wave energy allowed, knowing that many
bulkheads built years ago are not really needed.
The latest stories in our series, published in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound, are:
Although I believe that most shoreline property owners are
environmentally responsible, I do wonder about people who have
damaged shoreline habitats to improve their view or water access
without obtaining the required permits. It seems at every hearing
regarding shoreline regulations, somebody will speak up and say,
“It’s my property, and I can do what I want!”
One of the interviews that did not make it into the series was a
discussion I had with Jay Manning, a South Kitsap native who went
on to serve as an assistant attorney general, director of the
Washington Department of Ecology and the governor’s chief of staff
when Chris Gregoire was in office. Jay now serves as a member of
the Puget Sound Leadership Council, the governing body for the
Puget Sound Partnership.
Jay and I got to talking about how waterfront property owners
occupy a special place — literally and legally — when it comes to
protecting the public’s interest in shoreline ecosystems. A balance
of public and private rights is embodied in the state’s Shoreline
Management Act, which demands the highest level of protection for
water bodies and adjacent lands.
The public’s ability to enjoy natural resources along the
waterfront “shall be preserved to the greatest extent feasible,”
the act states. “To this end, uses shall be preferred which are
consistent with control of pollution and prevention of damage to
the natural environment, or are unique to or dependent upon use of
the state’s shoreline.”
As an assistant attorney general representing Ecology, Jay
learned that shoreline ownership embodies a special public-private
“It’s much more significant, I think, than what you find with
upland properties,” he said. “The full array of (private property)
rights that you find in upland areas does not apply to shoreline
State law builds upon the Public Trust Doctrine, an ancient and
enduring principle that retains certain rights to the public for
all time, regardless of ownership.
Jay, a shoreline property owner himself, says the Puget Sound
Partnership has identified the protection and restoration of
shorelines as a key element in the recovery of Puget Sound.
A few years ago, many cities and counties routinely approved
bulkheads without giving it a second thought. But that has been
changing as local jurisdictions adopt new shoreline master
programs. Now, one cannot get approval to build a bulkhead unless a
house is imminently threatened by waves or erosion.
So far, about half of the 12 counties in the Puget Sound region
are operating under the revised requirements, along with nearly 90
percent of the 101 cities.
Unfortunately, Jay noted, rules related to shorelines have never
been as rigorously enforced as those related to water quality, for
which the threats to human health are more obvious. Counties and
cities vary greatly in the amount of effort they put into land-use
For some people, it just seems easier to move ahead and get the
work done, thus avoiding delays and costs of permitting, consulting
work and mitigation. Some people don’t believe that shoreline
regulations make much sense.
But, as many local officials told me, they would like the chance
to talk with property owners about the value of shorelines, explain
the regulations and discuss various alternatives that might even
save money. Most regulations, after all, have a basis in science,
and we can all learn from what the latest studies are telling
As the new report describes, increased flooding, more frequent
landslides and decreased salmon runs are likely, along with
declines in some native species and increases in others. We are
likely to see more successful invasions by nonnative species, while
summer drought could cause more insect damage to forests and more
“When you look at the projected changes, it’s dramatic,” said
lead author Guillaume Mauger in a
news release. “This report provides a single resource for
people to look at what’s coming and think about how to adapt.”
The report includes examples of communities taking actions to
prepare for climate change, such as merging flood-management
districts to prepare for increased flooding in King County and
designing infrastructure to contend with rising sea levels in other
“In the same way that the science is very different from the
last report in 2005, I think the capacity and willingness to work
on climate change is in a completely different place,” Mauger
Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound
Partnership, said the people of Puget Sound must be prepared for
changes that have already begun.
“To protect Puget Sound, we need to plan for the ever-increasing
impacts of climate change,” she said in a
news release. “This report helps us better understand the very
real pressures we will face over the coming decades. The effects of
climate change impact every part of what we consider necessary for
a healthy Puget Sound: clean water, abundant water quantity, human
wellbeing, and a Puget Sound habitat that can support our native
Work to compile the report was funded by the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency via the Puget Sound Institute at UW Tacoma, the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of
The report will become part of the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound,
where my climate-change stories will reside after publication over
the next three weeks. I’m currently working part-time for the Puget
Sound Institute, which publishes the encyclopedia and is affiliated
with the University of Washington — Tacoma.
For other news stories about the report, check out:
Measuring the progress of Puget Sound restoration is a very
difficult thing to do.
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
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
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.”
“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).
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
None of the indicators for species or food-web health are
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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.
By swimming the entire Green/Duwamish River in King County, Mark
Powell hopes to show that the river’s full length — roughly 85
miles from the mountains to Puget Sound — is a single system worthy
of protection and restoration.
I believe that most people have heard about the Duwamish
Waterway in Seattle, a channelized, industrialized section of the
lower Duwamish River where decades of pollution are being cleaned
up, one step at a time. But how much does anyone know about the
upper end of the river, which begins as a trickle of crystal clear
water in the Cascade Mountains south of Snoqualmie Pass?
“Almost nobody knows the river well, not even the people who
live along the river,” Mark told me.
Mark, the Puget Sound Program director for Washington
Environmental Council. said the idea of swimming the entire river
came to him during the kickoff of a new
Green/Duwamish Watershed Strategy by King County and Seattle.
The plan is to identify all the significant problems in the
PDF 1.1 mb) and to increase restoration efforts where
“I thought this would be an interesting way to connect with
people,” Mark said. “I’m a guy who likes to get outdoors, so this
is a personal commitment I could make.”
Mark swam around Bainbridge Island in the winter of 2008-09.
““By swimming the whole coastline, I’m not just diving to the
pretty spots. I’m forced to look at the gross parts,” he told
reporter Michelle Ma in a story for the
So far, Mark has been swimming the upper and middle portions of
the Green/Duwamish River. He said his biggest surprise is finding
pockets of good habitat everywhere he goes.
Earlier this month, he was accompanied on the river by Sheida
Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, and
Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the partnership’s Leadership
Council. A few days before they swam the river near Auburn, the
Leadership Council approved new “vitals signs” indicators for
“human health” and “human well-being” to emphasize the human
connection to the Puget Sound ecosystem. See
“Water Ways” July 30.
The human connection was still on Sheida’s mind when I talked to
her about a week after her trip to the Green River. The most
“eye-opening” part of the swim for her was the condition of “this
incredibly beautiful natural element coursing through a very urban
She saw evidence of people living along the river in
less-than-desirable conditions, she said. There were barbecues and
trailer houses but no suggestion that people had any connection to
the river — except that some individuals apparently were using it
as a toilet, she said.
“I haven’t quite wrapped my head around that, but it feels very
right that we are considering human well-being,” she explained. “On
the one hand is what we have done to the river. On the other hand
is what we have done to ourselves. We need to figure out how it all
Mark’s adventures on the river are chronicled in a blog called
Duwamish.” He hopes to swim every section of the river where he
is allowed to go and be safe. A portion of the Green River
controlled by the city of Tacoma has no public access, because it
is a source of the city’s water supply. Rapids in the Green River
Gorge are said to be dangerous, so Mark will look for a guide to
help him. And because of heavy marine traffic in the Duwamish
Waterway, he may use a boat to escort him on his approach to
Seattle’s Elliott Bay.
The Green/Duwamish River may be the most disjointed river in
Puget Sound, both physically and psychologically. People who have
seen the industrialized lower river find it hard to visualize the
near-pristine salmon stream spilling clean water down from the
mountains. It is the upper part that provides the inspiration to
clean up the lower part, Mark told me.
“If there was a reason for sacrificing a river, you could find
it in the Duwamish,” he said. “But we can’t afford to sacrifice
even one river. To me, this is what protecting Puget Sound is all
about. By the time the pollution gets to Puget Sound it is too
If salmon can make it through the gauntlet in the lower river,
they may have a fighting chance to spawn and produce a new
generation of Green River fish. Improving their migration corridor
is not an impossible dream.
I suggested to Mark that the name of the river be officially
changed to “Green/Duwamish” or “Green-Duwamish” to help people
recognize that this is a single river from the mountains to Puget
Sound. After all, the name “Salish Sea” has helped some people
realize that we share an inland waterway with Canadians. The other
name-change option would be to call it Duwamish all the way.
Until I started reading about the Duwamish, I didn’t realize how
this river once captured water from the Black River and the White
River as well as the Green River and the Cedar River. But the
system has changed drastically over the past century or so.
As you can see in the map on this page, the Green River once
joined the White River and flowed north, picking up waters from the
Black River. The Black River, which took drainage from Lake
Washington, picked up water from the Cedar River.
Where the Black River merged with the White River, it became the
Duwamish all the way to Puget Sound.
Two major events changed the rivers’ flow and subsequently the
nomenclature. In 1906, a flood diverted the White River to the
south into the channel of the Stuck River, which flowed into the
Puyallup River. Shortly after that, the White River was
artificially confined to keep it flowing south. Because the river
flowing north contained water only from the Green River, the name
“White” was changed to “Green” downstream to where the Duwamish
The other big event was the construction of the Lake Washington
Ship Canal in 1917 to connect the lake with Puget Sound. The
construction lowered the lake by more than 8 feet, with the lake
level controlled by the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. The Black River,
which had taken the discharge flow from Lake Washington before
construction, then dried up. The Cedar River, which had flowed into
the Black River, was diverted into the lake.
Following those changes, the Green River and the Duwamish became
essentially the same river, with the total flow perhaps one-third
as much as it had been before the changes. If you are interested in
this history and other geological forces at work in the area, check
out the 1970 report by the U.S. Geological Survey
(PDF 53.1 mb).