Puget Sound Partnership improves, but some changes still needed

Puget Sound Partnership, created by the Legislature to coordinate protection and restoration of Puget Sound, has improved its operations over the past four years, according to a state audit report, which also makes recommendations for further improvements.

One area where the Partnership is not meeting its legal mandate is to identify partner organizations — including state agencies and county governments — that are not living up to their responsibilities under the Puget Sound Action Agenda, which guides the overall restoration effort.

Likewise, the Partnership has not been calling out partners that have made outstanding progress in their efforts to protect and restore Puget Sound, according to the audit, which was approved last week by state legislators who make up the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, or JLARC.

The video below shows the portion of the JLARC meeting addressing the audit report on the Puget Sound Partnership.

The one legal deficiency involves the old carrot-and-stick approach, shaming those who are failing to protect Puget Sound while praising those doing a bang-up job. One concern I’ve heard is that shaming may be counter-productive, since the Partnership has no legal authority to force anybody to do anything. Nevertheless, the approach is required by state law.

The three primary recommendations coming out of the audit:

1. “The Partnership should submit a plan to the Legislature that identifies and addresses needed revisions to the planning and recovery timeframes.”

The goal of restoring Puget Sound to a healthy condition by the year 2020 was always seen as an “aspirational” approach to encourage rapid action. I have never heard anyone say he or she believes that it was even remotely possible to get the job done by then.

Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Partnership, told the JLARC that the whole idea of time frames is being reconsidered. Interim targets are reasonable, she said, but the notion of completely finishing the restoration effort “does not apply to a living ecosystem.” As the population continues to grow in the Puget Sound region with more and more land taken for development, it will be necessary to continue protection and restoration into the future.

Since the year 2020 was written into the law, the Legislature may need to address this new way of thinking. I mentioned this issue in Water Ways in January after the preliminary audit report was released.

2. “The Office of Financial Management and the Partnership should submit a plan to the Legislature that details how they will create a more complete inventory of recovery actions and funding.”

The audit points out that the Action Agenda prioritizes what are called near-term actions, but it does not include ongoing or long-term ecosystem programs embedded within state and county agencies. One example is the Department of Ecology’s Toxics Cleanup Program, which operates somewhat independently on dedicated funds collected from the producers of oil and toxic chemicals.

A full inventory of restoration actions is needed to ensure a comprehensive understanding of further needs as well to better coordinate the overall cleanup.

Sheida noted that since the Partnership has no regulatory authority, it relies on agencies to voluntary submit plans and expenditures for long-term and ongoing programs that lie outside the current scope of the Action Agenda.

Legislative Auditor Keenan Konopaski told audit committee members that his staff recognizes the limitations of the Partnership, which is why the recommendation is to work with OFM to come up with a solution. And that could include legislation to provide greater authority for the Partnership to obtain the information it needs.

“The brevity of the wording (of the recommendation) is not meant to imply that there is a simple solution,” he said.

3. “The Partnership should submit a plan to the Legislature that details how it will address the deficiencies in its ability to meet the essential requirements for a monitoring program, as identified by JLARC staff. The plan should also address how the Partnership will improve and clarify links between monitoring and planning.”

Through so-called “implementation strategies,” the Partnership has begun to identify specific actions that focus entirely on meeting one or more of the Vital Signs targets. These targets are, in turn, linked to indicators of ecosystem health. Check out the ongoing series on implementation strategies in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Of course, meeting the Vital Signs targets as well as the interim targets depends on measuring the various Vitals Signs — such as fish and bird populations, levels of toxic chemicals and acres of shellfish beds.

The JLARC staff concluded that the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program, established at the direction of the Legislature, meets some, but not all, of the basic requirements of a good monitoring program, as described in a report from the Department of Ecology.

PSEMP operates by committee and does not come under the authority of the Partnership, nor is the monitoring well integrated into recovery planning, according to the audit. That tends to create confusion about the work that should be done.

The audit recommends that the Partnership submit a plan to the Legislature for comprehensive monitoring with clear links between monitoring and restoration plans.

Sheida told the legislators on the audit committee that she agrees with all of the recommendations and believes the Partnership can develop the proposed plans. One constraint might be funding, both state and federal.

Some 60 percent of the agency’s budget comes from the federal government — mostly the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been targeted for a major budget reduction by the Trump administration. Meanwhile, the state budget has yet to be approved by the Legislature.

“I have to thank the folks at JLARC who have been doing the most thorough professional and productive work, and I really appreciate the time they have put in this,” Sheida told the committee.

“You can tell by listening to these folks that they have gotten as knowledgeable about our organization as anyone — and that is not an easy task.”

The JLARC unanimously approved the final report, which also can be downloaded in printable format (12.6 mb).

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