The PSP Interviews: Gerry O’Keefe

Now this is a coincidence. When I wrote my recent progress report on the Puget Sound Partnership, my story included little more than brief quotes and snippits of information from a variety of informed people. That’s why I began this series called “The PSP Interviews.” I was preparing to write up this interview with Gerry O’Keefe this weekend when I learned that Gov. Chris Gregoire had named him as the permanent director of the Puget Sound Partnership on Friday.

Gerry O’Keefe’s first impressions of the Puget Sound region came shortly after he began graduate school work at the University of Washington in 1984.

“Some of my first memories are of riding the #44 bus across 45th Street and looking out the window and seeing the mountains,” he said.

O’Keefe worked in the state budget office from 1989 to 1997 and then became engaged in budget issues at the Washington Department of Ecology. Before he left Ecology in 2008, he had tackled major water-resource discussions focused on the Columbia River. Coming up with an overall agreement on water resources required him to bring together diverse interests, including local government, business owners and tribes.

In 2008, O’Keefe went to work for the Grant County Public Utility District, where he oversaw a $1-billion environmental program, largely an effort to mitigate for the effects of dams on salmon populations.

“I like to be oriented around solutions and trying to help people get their money’s worth,” O’Keefe told me.

That’s a major reason he was selected as deputy director for the Puget Sound Partnership last March, moving into the acting director post when David Dicks left for the UW at the beginning of December.

I quoted O’Keefe in my story after questioning him about his reputation as a “nuts-and-bolts man”:

“The focus of my work when I first came on was nuts and bolts. We had a few loose ones rolling around on the floor and we needed to tighten them down.”

But O’Keefe said his skills are various, and his love for the Northwest has grown from his childhood in Minnesota.

“I have raised my family here. We have spent time in tide pools and on the top of mountains. Out here, I feel like I am a kid in a candy store. The fun I have had as a parent and as an adult, being on the water and in the water…, has been a kind of miracle.”

On the other hand, Gerry’s work at Ecology and with the Puget Sound Partnership has revealed the dark side of our local waterway.

“Underneath the water is stuff that you don’t see everyday, like dirty water bubbling out of a stormwater outfall. Herring populations have declined. Shorebirds have declined. What is going on? You have to get beneath the surface (literally and figuratively) to see what is happening to this beautiful body of water.”

O’Keefe understands the workings of the partnership like few others. Setting up ecosystem targets, tracking expenditures, and setting goals and priorities are all part of the effort.

“It is difficult to explain what we are promising to do. But when we present the data that the monitoring system will give us … we’ll come up tangible things that everyone can see.”

Gerry said he can understand why people are impatient with the pace of efforts by the partnership, but it takes time to set up complex new systems.

“We have made it complex, but it’s complex because the science interface is a complex place. We are talking about the recovery of an ecosystem, and it is not an easy task.”

The partnership’s “performance management system” will track the things that people from all agencies and all levels of government promise to do for Puget Sound and also help determine if the pace is adequate.

When asked if Puget Sound is getting better or worse, Gerry tells me that most signs are pointing toward the worse, with a few exceptions.

“We have a ways to go. The data will bear that out. Orcas are one of the most polluted creatures on the face of the Earth. Seabirds have declined by over half in the past 30 years. We don’t know why that is or what is happening to forage fish like herring. But all this is telling us there is a problem.”

I pointed out that progress has been made on reducing point pollution from industry, that sewage-treatment plants have reduced bacterial loading and that some shellfish beds have actually reopened.

“You would have to convince me that water quality in Puget Sound is getting better,” he responded. “We have a lot of shellfish beds that are closed to harvest. There are 4.5 million people living around this body of water, and the collective impact is taking its toll on all of Puget Sound, and we haven’t found how to bring that back into balance.”

One of the big goals, O’Keefe said, is to find ways for the human population to live in harmony with nature.

I ask him if there is one thing he wants the public know about the Puget Sound Partnership.

“I’m a lot more interested in having people understand about Puget Sound than I am about the partnership. My ambition is that the partnership will be constructive in helping to bring about an understanding of the problem.

“We are focused on delivering. We have work to do, and we need to get it done. That is clear as day to me.”

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