Debate over restoration dollars begins to warm gradually

I want to let you in on a little debate that will become vitally important to salmon restoration in the coming weeks. It’s not really going on behind the scenes, so some of you may be aware of it. But it hasn’t yet been formulated as a stark policy issue.

Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, not far from the heart of salmon country
Kitsap Sun photo

Basically, the question is this: Should limited dollars be spent to protect the best habitat remaining, restore slightly degraded systems to high-quality habitat, or try to bring salmon back to urban areas where the most people live.

In the Aug. 7 edition of Crosscut, writer Daniel Jack Chasan invoked the word “triage” when he said that “we’ll never have enough money to do everything; so it makes sense to concentrate resources on the most significant projects with the greatest chances of success.”

Dan mentions a conversation he had with David Dicks, executive director of Puget Sound Partnership, and he quoted John Lombard, author of “Saving Puget Sound” in making his point that putting money into urban streams may be a waste of money in terms of habitat benefits.

In her latest blog, Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound, did not mention Dan’s piece by name, but she mentioned “triage” and emphasized that she wants to “put the wooden stake into the heart of this kind of thinking.”

She continues:

This is the kind of thinking that gets us beautiful places to visit but unhealthy places to live. This is the kind of thinking that gets us places for salmon to spawn but nothing for the salmon to eat when they leave the rivers. This is the kind of thinking that gets us lovely areas to observe orca whales—as they die out because of contamination in our urban bays, and not enough salmon to eat.

This is the kind of thinking that encourages us to believe that it doesn’t matter what poisons we pour on our lawn or how much pavement we spread around in our urban areas.

If we “triage” and write off our urban areas, we write off the lowlands and we write off a healthy Puget Sound. That’s because a healthy Puget Sound ecosystem is tied together by clean water, clean air, shorelines, wetlands, currents and plants and animals that move from place to place. Simplistic thinking about “triage” might sound practical, sensible, efficient, business-like and even effective—but it’s not…

We want to bring the patient back to health. Trying to save its heart at the expense of its kidneys and liver is the path to failure.

Kathy makes a passionate and powerful argument about the need for holistic medicine. Definitions are important, it turns out. Is the patient we’re talking about Puget Sound as a whole? Is it a watershed or just a stream or a bay?

I particularly like her reminder that many of our cities are built at the river mouths. We might not ever restore these areas enough to call them prime spawning habitat, but we can do things to help the adult fish make it through on their way upstream to spawn. We might help the juveniles survive on their way to the ocean.

Kathy is a member of the Ecosystem Coordination Board of the Puget Sound Partnership. It sounds like she is ready to make a strong case when this issue comes up as part of the Puget Sound Action Agenda — and it will. Remember, that the four Action Agenda priorities include focusing on the “most urgent and important problems,” as well as protecting the most “intact ecosystems.”

Going back to Dan Chasan’s article, some good points are made about where to find money for ecosystem restoration. For example, the Washington Department of Transportation spends millions of dollars each year to mitigate highway construction projects. We could take a look at whether all this money is best spent at the edge of the highway, as it is now, or whether it might be moved upstream or downstream to solve more significant ecosystem problems.

I have been thinking about another source of money that may have some merit. Lately, Kitsap County planning officials have been approving land-use variances right and left, and I’m sure Kitsap is not alone.

For example, a stream or shoreline buffer may be 100 feet, but many legal building sites don’t have enough property for the full buffer width. So, with the help of a hired biologist, the county frequently approves a buffer of 50 feet or less. Mitigation may include planting some shrubs, but I doubt that the resulting “functions and values” measure up to a larger buffer.

I realize that this idea will be controversial, and it isn’t ready for prime time. But would if there was a fee per foot for the variance, with credit given back for the mitigation work? At $100 a foot, a shoreline variance of 50 feet would provide $5,000. If the plantings cost $1,000, the property owner would contribute $4,000 into a fund for restoration somewhere else in that watershed. It’s just a thought, so be kind with any attacks you feel are necessary.

11 thoughts on “Debate over restoration dollars begins to warm gradually

  1. And, Chris, if the property owner is required to fully mitigate stormwater on site, do you advocate they pay a reduced or no, stormwater fee?

  2. The stormwater fee is a separate issue, Blue Light, but you raise a good question. If you build rain gardens that take care of all the stormwater and if the county is not asked to maintain these systems, why shouldn’t you get a fee reduction? On the other hand, a good deal of the revenue from stormwater fees goes to nonmaintenance programs — including monitoring to locate pollution problems, building regional systems that benefit everyone and public education to help people reduce their own impacts.

    I got to thinking after I wrote this post that there is a hole in my logic that needs careful consideration: If a biologist can prove that a 50-foot buffer actually works as well as a 100-foot buffer, why isn’t that good enough? I don’t know how often that would be the case, but it’s at least conceivable, knowing as much or as little as I do about the science of buffers.

  3. Yes, Chris, the devil is in the details. Several thoughts…

    One: if buffers and critical area designations are set somewhat arbitrarily (and I think there is a good argument to be made that they are), buying one’s way back to reasonableness will be rather unpalatable. The “conservancy” designation of the Seabeck Marina (and subsequent consequences) comes to mind as an arbitrary designation (over-reaching, even).

    Two: Social equity issues arise. The wealthy can buy their way out of regulation. The rest of us…

    Three: Paying off the County is not much different than paying off the Tribe. Where does the money go? And will it really be used to offset the damages one’s development is believed to be causing? I believe the term of law is “nexus”; a direct relationship between the damage and the remedy. Theoretically, that should be demonstrable. In many cases, it is not. The Port’s mitigation agreement with the Suquamish Tribe over the Bremerton Marina, comes to mind as an example. I see no “nexus” between the damage. That “mitigation” looks more like extortion.

  4. “…This is the kind of thinking that gets us lovely areas to observe orca whales—as they die out because of contamination in our urban bays, and not enough salmon to eat.

    This is the kind of thinking that encourages us to believe that it doesn’t matter what poisons we pour on our lawn or how much pavement we spread around in our urban areas.

    If we “triage” and write off our urban areas, we write off the lowlands and we write off a healthy Puget Sound. That’s because a healthy Puget Sound ecosystem is tied together by clean water, clean air, shorelines, wetlands, currents and plants and animals that move from place to place. Simplistic thinking about “triage” might sound practical, sensible, efficient, business-like and even effective—but it’s not…

    We want to bring the patient back to health. Trying to save its heart at the expense of its kidneys and liver is the path to failure….”

    Kathy Fletcher … OH, YES!!!
    Speak softly but carry a big stick. The power of her comments resonate…no one could disagree. This girl has common sense, logic…wow!
    Thank you.
    Sharon O’Hara

  5. “…For example, a stream or shoreline buffer may be 100 feet, but many legal building sites don’t have enough property for the full buffer width. So, with the help of a hired biologist, the county frequently approves a buffer of 50 feet or less. Mitigation may include planting some shrubs, but I doubt that the resulting “functions and values” measure up to a larger buffer….”

    Good idea, but with the county intent to let property owners build within ten feet of the high water mark – maybe less – why have buffers at all?

    We’re killing our waterways and all a property owner has to do to get the county to forget the buffers, is own a small lot that won’t meet the regulations…and it is mitigated so they can build.

    People buy the small waterfront lots… the county will let you build. They apparently know which side the bread is buttered….
    In my opinion … with our waterways in its present condition…the county is irresponsible in its zeal to allow people to build without the proper buffers in place.
    Sharon O’Hara

  6. I have sat on the Jefferson cty. Shorelines Master Plan (SMP) and have participated in the buffer discussion. Part of the reason it’s “arbitrary” and can be “mitigated” is because of the desire to allow for on the ground situations that could be different than a blanket law states. Yes, the rich, who can afford the biologists, studies etc, do get an advantage here, it seems to me. But given current state law, this is the ugly truth of trying to hammer out a program to protect a county’s shorelines.

    Part of the problem though is that enforcement of what has been done is almost nil,in real terms, and there is little or no money in any rural county budget for enforcement. Also the goal of the agencies charged with enforcing it is to raise tax dollars for the counties through costruction permits. A good example is the complaints that have been floating around for over two years about Little Goose Creek, and the homeowner who flagrantly violated the laws. Jefferson County’s supposed enforcement people have done nothing of significance on this issue.

    Lastly, there is a misreading of John Lombard’s book, I believe (yes I’ve read it!). I do believe his arguement is not to abandon the urban areas restoration, but that the urban areas currently get a much larger share of dollars for restoration, and yet the places that these urbanites go to recreate, are not being saved because they are starved for dollars. His arguement is that we need to put *more* money into rural restoration and mitigation and the urbanites need to ante up, because they have the lion’s share of the money.

    But maybe John himself will weigh in on this…

  7. Since they are not taxed and were given a zero-revenue sharing deal by Christine Gregoire, how about the Tribes dedicate 5% of their gaming proceeds to a dedicated recovery fund to be administered by the Puget Sound Partnership?

  8. “Part of the problem though is that enforcement of what has been done is almost nil,in real terms, and there is little or no money in any rural county budget for enforcement.”

    But, this is a priority decision by those counties. As was pointed out here in Kitsap… Kitsap County started a brand new Department of Natural Resources when salmon were first listed. The last time I looked that department’s budget was over $600,000.

    If counties choose education and outreach over enforcement, that is their decision. And should be recognized as such. In my experience the hunt is always on for “new” money. And I think the citizens have been crying for “reprioritization”. And I fear that if the PSP dedicates itself to new funding, they will alienate the public from the cause. To the ongoing detriment of the Sound.

  9. Good website, Chris H…its a lot to home in on.

    “…In the face of terrorism and catastrophic natural disasters, modern regional trauma systems that improve survival for critically injured patients are more vital than ever. …for the first time, researchers at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center have created a computer simulation model of trauma system response to mass casualty incidents involving dozens or hundreds of injured victims.

    The study shows that the best response depends more on the capability of regional hospitals to treat critically injured victims than on the ability to accurately identify those victims in the field. “There’s been the notion gleaned from prior studies that ‘overtriage’-letting some people into emergency care who might not actually need it-usually ends up costing lives, with deaths rising as overtriage rates increase. …” says lead researcher Dr. Nathaniel Hupert, assistant professor of public health and medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and assistant attending physician at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center….”

    Blue Light…”…if the PSP dedicates itself to new funding, they will alienate the public from the cause. To the ongoing detriment of the Sound….”

    Good points…I don’t have answers but there is no way that mitigating buffers to within ten feet of the high water mark…no way is such a thing doing more than continued damage to our own waterways and its critters…moving on up the food chain to the whales and beyond. We are all affected by the irresponsible action of the county.

    The county may have dollars in their pockets today from doing such mitigation but as our waterways disintegrate so will any reason to live on waterfront. The County will likely make less tomorrow.

    Most businesses plan today in order to make more tomorrow…why not the County?
    Sharon O’Hara

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