Puget Sound: Hopeful signs shine through complex cleanup effort

While putting the final touches on a two-year, 10-part series about the Puget Sound ecosystem, I couldn’t help but wonder about the true character of Washington state and its citizens.

Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid

How much do people really care about salmon and rockfish, eagles and herons, killer whales, cougars, and many lesser-known species in and around Puget Sound? Do we have a political system capable of supporting the needed efforts — financially and legally — to correct the problems?

After interviewing hundreds of people over the past few years, I have a pretty good feeling about this state, especially when considering other parts of the country. There is hope that we can save some of the remaining gems of the Puget Sound ecosystem while restoring functioning conditions in other places.

Puget Sound Partnership, which is overseeing the restoration efforts, still has the support of many people and organizations — including many conservatives and business-oriented folks. That support comes despite ongoing struggles by the partnership to find a proper place within the state’s political system. Review my latest story in the Kitsap Sun (subscription).

“Let science lead the way” remains the refrain of both critics and supporters of the partnership. But that is easier said than done — even if you could take politics out of the equation.

Scientists in almost any field of research don’t always agree on the fundamental problems, and there is a competition among scientific disciplines for limited research dollars. Are endangered fish more important than endangered birds or endangered whales, or should we be studying the plankton, sediments and eelgrass that form the base of the food web?

Really, where should we focus our attention and tax dollars? That’s a key question. The correct answer is, and always has been, “All of the above.”

When it comes to funding, the decision-making becomes widely disbursed, and I’m not sure whether that is good or bad. At the local level, we have Lead Entities and Local Integrating Organizations. At the state level, we have the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, the Recreation and Conservation Funding Board and agencies themselves.

Then there is the Puget Sound Partnership, with its seven-member Leadership Council and 28-member Ecosystem Coordination Board, along with its science advisory panel. The partnership establishes an Action Agenda to guide funding decisions by the others.

One would never want an individual man or woman deciding where the money should go. But do the various groups help identify important problems, or do they diffuse attention from what could be a focused strategy? I believe this will always be somewhat a philosophical question.

One thing I confirmed in the final installment of the 10-part series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” is that nobody was ever serious about a deadline established in the law creating the Puget Sound Partnership. Restoring Puget Sound by the year 2020 remains on the books as a goal that needs to be changed.

If officials acknowledge that the goal cannot be met, will the Legislature and the public continue their support for the current level of funding or perhaps increase support?

That gets back to my wondering about the true character of Washington state and its citizens. Based on past legislation, this state is clearly a leader in ecosystem protection. We have the Shoreline Management Act, the Growth Management Act (with its urban-concentration and critical-areas protections), Municipal Stormwater Permits, Forest Practices Act and more.

Are we ready to go all the way, by setting interim goals for 2020 and looking to the long term? We will need to better track progress, which means gathering more data in the field — monitoring, if you will.

Monitoring is not as inspiring as restoring an important estuary. But think of all the time and money spent on forecasting the weather, which relies entirely on monitoring with costly investments in satellites and equipment, all needing continual improvements.

Envision a significant role for experts who can describe changes in the ecosystem and help us decide if our money is being well spent. If weather reporters can hold a central role on the evening news, why shouldn’t we have ecosystem reporters discussing environmental conditions.

I wouldn’t mind hearing a report on the news something like this: “We are seeing improved conditions in southern Hood Canal, with scattered salmon spawning at upper elevations, and a 90 percent chance that oyster beds will be opened in Belfair.” (Just kidding, of course.)

Puget Sound Partnership’s proposed budget, as submitted by the governor, contains more than $1 million for assessing Puget Sound recovery. That could be an important step to providing information about how the ecosystem is responding to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on protection and restoration so far.

In writing about the future for the final part of the “Pulse” series, I described a 2008 report from the University of Washington’s Urban Ecology Research Lab. The report identified the primary “drivers” of change that would determine the future of the Puget Sound region.

It was interesting to learn that if we are lucky about climate change — or even if we’re not so lucky — the future is largely in our hands. How will we react to economic ups and downs? How will we address land use with millions of new people coming in? Will we embrace technology as the final solution or look to nature for answers?

The report describes six remarkably different scenarios, though others could be constructed. Perhaps the worst one is called “Collapse,” in which warning signs of ecological problems are ignored and economic challenges are met by relaxing environmental regulations and allowing residential sprawl. In the end, the ecosystem cannot withstand the assault. Shellfish beds are forced to close, and hundreds of species — including salmon and orcas — disappear.

Two scenarios hold more hopeful outcomes. One, called “Forward,” includes public investments to purchase sensitive areas, including shorelines. Growth becomes concentrated in cities, and people learn to fit into the ecosystem. The other, called “Adaptation,” includes grassroots efforts to save water and resources and improve people’s ecological behavior. Protecting shorelines, floodplains and wildlife corridors help reduce flooding and protect species that could have been wiped out. Check out “Scenarios offer glimpses of a possible future for Puget Sound,” Kitsap Sun (subscription).

Joel Baker, director of Puget Sound Institute, capped off my “futures” story with a sense of optimism, which I find contagious. I don’t know if Joel was thinking of the Frank Sinatra song, “New York, New York” which contains the line, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” But Joel told me something like, “If we can’t make it here, we can’t make it anywhere.”

Here are his exact words:

“As an environmental scientist, I find it interesting that things are starting to come together. We continue to grow economically, so we have the money.

“Energy is lining up with the environment, and we’re forcing the restoration program to think holistically. It’s as much about transportation as it is about sewage-treatment plants.

“The Pacific Northwest is technologically savvy; we have smart people here; and we have the collective will to get things done. So I’m optimistic about cleaning up Puget Sound. If we can’t do it here, God help the rest of the country.”

9 thoughts on “Puget Sound: Hopeful signs shine through complex cleanup effort

  1. A nice note to end the year with. I have long appreciated Chris’s coverage of most things Sound-like. Having spent many years trying to advance the conservation of said waterbody, I am less sanguine. While I have no doubt about the sincerity and dedication of the Leadership Council and most all who work for the Partnership, it is the degree to which the actual regulatory agencies adopt the mantra that will make the difference. Not only are we not going to meet the deadline for recovery, but just about every indicator we adopted to monitor the elusive goal is in decline.

    Two precedent setting regulatory changes occurred towards the end of the year that received little press attention, due in part, to the agencies apparent desire to keep their actions on the down low. The way in which DNR adopts the Aquatic habitat conservation plan (HCP) and WDFW updates their hydraulic code (HPA) will have more affect on the future of the Sound than just about anything that has happened here for years. Despite the significance of these new acronyms of conservation, the agencies failed to get the word out, allow adequate time for review or to even hold public hearings in such small towns like Seattle.

    Let’s hope our endangered orcas can keep a calf for more than a year in the future. If legend says hereditary tribal chiefs come back as killer whales, where do killer whales go when they die?

  2. Thanks, Fred. You make some excellent points. More attention should be paid to the nuts and bolts of regulation, and people should have a better idea if regulatory changes are helpful or harmful to the ecosystem.

    I’m equally worried that existing regulations are not being adequately enforced and that mitigation measures won’t stand the test of time, leading to a net degradation.

    My hopeful attitude comes from my observation that people are watching and measuring these things. There is a general understanding that more monitoring is needed to see where things are going well and where more attention — regulatory or otherwise — is needed.

    While there is always pushback from business, I don’t see the knee-jerk anti-regulatory stance in Washington state that seems to have blocked progress in other states. I suppose this shows my optimistic side coming through.

    In the end, how we continue with the restoration of Puget Sound depends largely on support from citizens and their elected officials over the coming years.

    1. Chris – I guess that’s why we love you. What a rare combination – an optimistic reporter…However I don’t see you as wearing rose-colored glasses either. I hope you continue to find creative outlets for your talents in the years to come. Thanks, Fred

  3. I’m a citizen and a pretty active volunteer in various environmental activities where I live. I want this program to succeed – or at least show progress.

    But the Puget Sound Partnership has no program to provide me with understandable information about the key issues (the documents and writings require a full college education (at least) to understand.) The Partnership does not tell me what serious things I and my cohorts can do to help – except supply the worn out dog poop and fertilizer mantras. We tend to jump on what our local non-profits are promoting; acting locally, with no sense of the global impact around the Sound. So I think that serious, stern public awareness is where the PSP has a huge opportunity to rally the ground troops – or not.

    It also seems odd that the Big Business folk (Amazon, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Gates, Allen, Alan Mulally even) are not active and helping lead this effort. Reading about what goes on with the Duwamish sounds more like a wrestling match than it does collaboration.

    But optimism abounds as well and reporting like yours, and a very few others, does help keep us enlightened and positive!

    Happy New Year.

  4. Excellent analysis as usual by Chris. Fred and Peter’s thoughts also mirror mine. I would add that the local groups that do the ground work in the field are more critical than the State organizations, though both serve their roles. Local governments, non profits, volunteers, tribes and Marine Resource Committees know the conditions locally that need changing. The Partnership, EPA and other governmental bureaucracies help in providing money to them(us), help with prioritization roles, and wishful thinking, PR, though money for real education of the public is almost non existent. These local people identified the issues, put together the teams, wrote the grants, and did the work when the money arrived. It is an imperfect system that actually has worked well, in places like Chimacum Creek, The Jimmy Come Lately, Dungeness, etc. The last thing I would like to see is more centralization, which would be the end of the line, and demoralizing. The PSP, with it’s flaws, could be better, but is not capable of leadership on all the Sound’s ills. We have seen many such agencies since the 70s, come and go. We can’t rely on them for our best future outcome. We can only hope they survive and help as they can. We’ll still be here long after they become something else.

  5. An excellent series and a blog post that is spot on, Chris. I share Joel Baker’s optimism. We can do this.

    The current team at PSP is doing a terrific job. I do hope the Governor and the legislature give them the resources to play a more active role funding large, regional priorities that might otherwise get the attention they deserve.

    I hope we will continue to read your work, Chris. It makes a difference.

    1. Thanks, Gerry. I hope we can find a way to make the 10-part series, “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound,” available to a wider audience, since much of it now requires a subscription. Meanwhile, I will keep writing this blog while focusing on in-depth stories covering a variety of environmental issues.

  6. Thanks Chris – have always enjoyed and supported your articles. We all know what to do and how to do it in reference to cleaning and protecting Puget Sound and our upstream habitats. The Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team (DERT) is leading an effort to remove the dam that forms Capitol Lake – at the mouth of the Deschutes River. The Lake – as you probably know – was “built” to reflect the legislative dome as an icon of our State government. The Lake is eutrophic, it is spent, shallow, full of invasives and just nasty! At this point – it is definitely a poor reflection of our State government at work. Still – there is no action being taken to remove the dam, let the river flow to South Puget Sound and the Salish Sea to help raise dissolved oxygen and improve the drastically impaired marine waters. There are folks who support keeping the lake and letting it hold back the pollutants from entering South Puget Sound….and there are us estuary restoration fans. And there are processes underway to “collaborate.” But no action, no decision, no movement forward towards cleaner water and a restored ecosystem. If we can’t fix the obvious problems because of lack of political will – how can we ever clean up Puget Sound? I still have TONS of hope….just TONS – but there is this little voice inside of me that squeaks…”right!”

    1. Sue,

      The issue of Capitol Lake must be frustrating for everyone. I probably don’t know enough to make suggestions, but I will anyway.

      Capitol Lake is an unusual restoration project, because most estuaries don’t carry the cultural and historical significance of Capitol Lake. Most estuaries would, without question, be improved aesthetically as well as functionally by restoration.

      If I were working for DERT, I would put a great deal more effort into letting people know how the restoration would improve the appearance of the entire area. The restoration would not destroy the walking trail but would provide for increased recreational and cultural opportunities. List the ideas for future consideration, showing how things could be better for residents and visitors to our state’s capitol. Create a vision of an improved, more natural appearance to the waterfront.

      Capitol Lake was built at a time when people were unaware of the importance of estuaries. Wetlands were being filled and diked, shorelines were being bulkheaded, streams were being diverted. The restoration of the Deschutes estuary — at our state’s center of government — could be symbolic of the restoration efforts taking place throughout Puget Sound.

      Of course, the scientific and economic arguments for restoration must be proven. But, at the heart of this issue, I think people are clinging to their visions of the past and failing to grasp how a natural estuary can be more beautiful than an artificial lake. That’s what supporters must show them.

      Someone may have done this already, but I would like to see an artist’s rendering of a restored estuary at high tide, showing a reflection of the Capitol dome upon still waters. Perhaps the restoration could be designed with a special viewpoint to make this reflection durable for all time.

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