Tag Archives: Chesapeake Bay

Puget Sound restoration is an adventure in science

It appears the Puget Sound Partnership will remain busy the rest of the year with a variety of critical activities, many of them mandated by state law.

I reported on last week’s meeting of the Leadership Council in a story published in Saturday’s Kitsap Sun. The meeting focused on approving a new Strategic Science Plan (PDF 11.8 mb) and efforts to identify indicators for measuring progress toward restoring Puget Sound. Helping write upcoming budgets for the state’s natural resource agencies and crafting new legislation will occupy significant time.

One of the interesting discussions about indicators was the question of whether jellyfish or herring should be used as an indicator of ecosystem health. Herring were said to be a broader measure, since they are eaten by far more species than jellyfish. At the same time, changes in herring population are harder to relate to a specific cause. The balance could be tipped toward herring, since so much historical data are available.

The council reviewed a new organizational structure (PDF 2.8 mb), which puts science squarely into the picture. There was a general agreement that vacant positions on the science staff need to be filled as soon as possible. Especially important is the science program director, who will direct day-to-day work at the partnership, and the natural resource scientist, who is seen as a liaison with the broader scientific community. Another important post is the oil spill research analyst, which is also vacant.

Jan Newton, a member of the Puget Sound Science Panel, made an impression on me when she pointed out how unique a place Puget Sound is.

“It’s not Chesapeake Bay; it’s not the Gulf,” Jan said. “We’re dealing with population change. We’re not on a static playing field. We need to recognize that.”

Puget Sound Partnership must not be limited by studies that have been done in the past. The organization has the horsepower to call for new research in its quest to figure out how the ecosystem really works.

After hearing Jan’s talk, I turned to the chapter in the Strategic Science Plan called “Puget Sound: Unique Ecosystem, Unique Community,” where I found this instructive language:

“Puget Sound is the second largest estuary in the United States, with over 3,000 kilometers of shoreline. Carved by retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age 11,000-15,000 years ago, the fjord-like geomorphology of Puget Sound is somewhat unique in the United States. Most estuaries in this country are coastal plain or drowned river estuaries, lacking significant restrictions to the coastal ocean and lacking the great depths and strong tidal currents well known in Puget Sound. The average depth of Puget Sound is 62 meters with a maximum depth of 280 meters.” (Compare that to Chesapeake Bay in the charts below.)

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Is it time to watch Chesapeake Bay for solutions?

After years of struggle and failure to reverse the decline of Chesapeake Bay’s rich ecosystem, the Obama administration this morning announced a new federal strategy for restoring the bay to health.

I believe it will be important for us in the Puget Sound region to pay attention to this strategy, as we also observe our own Puget Sound Partnership struggling to accomplish similar goals in our region.

The new “Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed” appears to focus the regulatory weight of the federal government onto a restoration problem that a multitude of states has been unable to accomplish together. A news release from the Environmental Protection Agency puts it this way:

“The strategy includes using rigorous regulations to restore clean water, implementing new conservation practices on 4 million acres of farms, conserving 2 million acres of undeveloped land and rebuilding oysters in 20 tributaries of the bay.

“To increase accountability, federal agencies will establish milestones every two years for actions to make progress toward measurable environmental goals. These will support and complement the states’ two-year milestones.”

Last year, out of frustration, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sued the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to enforce provisions of the Clean Water Act that would improve the bay’s water quality and help the ecosystem. Yesterday, the CBF dropped the lawsuit on a promise that the EPA will ensure that improvements are made on a strict schedule.

In many ways, the strategy appears to mirror philosophies found in the legislation creating the Puget Sound Partnership — including science-based priorities, measured progress and accountability.

One idea from the Chesapeake strategy: “Greater transparency and integration of federal, state and local actions will be greatly enhanced through ChesapeakeStat, a web-based tool designed to provide performance data and information in a format that allows a range of audiences to understand the work being done in the Chesapeake watershed.”

The new federal strategy recognizes the need to continue existing efforts and to focus on other short-term actions by local governments and nonprofit organizations. It also includes a focus on jobs, including agriculture, fishing and conservation. And, as with the Puget Sound Partnership, a strong effort will be made to focus dollars and resources where it will do the most good.

Here are some comments from federal officials taken from the news release:
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Who will lead for Puget Sound and Chesapeake Bay?

Federal officials are planning to put some heavy muscle on persons responsible for polluting Chesapeake Bay.

It’s an approach that several environmental groups in the Puget Sound region would like to see here.

“If the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan works, a bay known for soft-touch oversight could become one of the most aggressively regulated bodies of water in the country,” writes David Fahrentold, a reporter for the Washington Post.

Federal agencies today released seven draft reports calling for increased accountability and expanded use of regulatory authorities that can address pollution control and other issues. See “Chesapeake Bay Executive Order.” Despite concerted efforts over the past 25 years, the health of Chesapeake Bay remains “exceptionally poor,” federal officials say.

“We need bold new leadership, collective accountability by all contributors to the Bay’s problems, and dramatic changes in policies using all the tools at hand if we are to fulfill President Obama’s goal for clean water throughout the region,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in a news release (PDF 24 kb). “These reports bring us a step closer to achieving the vision we all share for the future of the Chesapeake Bay.”

The EPA has several programs that could force polluters to take action. Through the years, the agency has been reluctant to use its authority, preferring to gain voluntary compliance by producing studies that show how bad things are getting. The Chesapeake Bay Program, a multi-state, multi-jurisdiction organization, has been similarly criticized.

Last May, Fahrentold wrote a story for the Washington Post quoting Howard Ernst, a political science professor whose book “Chesapeake Bay Blues” served as a call to arms for Bay watchers.

Here’s Ernst’s key quote: “The question that’s before the bay program today . . . is whether or not they’re going to be an environmental implementation agency or they’re going to be a study-and-suggest agency. And the jury’s still out.”

Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound, has been observing Puget Sound up close for more years than she wants to count. And for years she has been worried about similar inaction. When Kathy read Ernst’s comment, she made this notation in her blog:

This sounds a lot like an estuary near here. With a comprehensive cleanup and management plan in place since December 1986, Puget Sound is still the object of almost endless discussion — by scientists who want to come up with a perfect model of the ecosystem’s complexity before saying for sure what we should do; by politicians who don’t want to be nailed for advocating the land use regulations or the money needed to do the job right; by polluters and developers who know that prolonging the conversation also postpones the day of reckoning.

We need actions that go directly to the bottom line of saving Puget Sound:

Scientists: The perfect is the enemy of the good. By the time you figure out exactly how Puget Sound is dying, it will be dead.

Politicians: You are our leaders. You know the Sound needs more than lip service and little bits of help here and there. Bold action is needed, and you’re the ones who can make it happen.

Polluters and developers: Our economy is inextricably linked to the quality of our environment. You and the Sound can both thrive, but only if you get green. Really green. ASAP.

The Puget Sound Partnership has put together an Action Agenda designed around the notion of getting people and agencies to commit themselves to doing the right thing for Puget Sound then holding their feet to the fire. In Puget Sound, the federal government is taking somewhat of a back seat to the new state-based organization.

Will the revised Chesapeake model work better than the one we’ve approved for Puget Sound? I can’t say, but you can be sure we’ll be watching both waterways.

Hedrick Smith talks about Puget Sound and film “Poisoned Waters”

Next week’s Frontline program on PBS allows viewers to race along with killer whales in the San Juan Islands, explore Seattle’s Elliott Bay with scuba divers and watch crab fishermen work their pots on Chesapeake Bay.

<i>Hedrick Smith</i><br> <small>PBS photo</small>
Hedrick Smith // PBS photo

Along the way, reporter Hedrick Smith peers into more stormwater outfalls than I could count, as he goes about asking scientists, politicians and environmental activists why Puget Sound and Chesapeake Bay are dying.

The two-hour documentary, titled “Poisoned Waters” (Tuesday, 9 p.m., KCTS) features stunning visuals that remind us why we love our waterways. More importantly, the program confronts questions about why we allowed these estuaries to be used as a toilet, unraveling the food web and even threatening our revered orcas with extinction.

When I talked to Hedrick Smith this afternoon, he said this project was unlike any he had done before.

“As a reporter, I loved it,” he told me. “I’m an outdoor kind of person. I have sailed both bodies of water. I was passionate about the outdoors, but I didn’t realize how bad the situation was. This has been an enormous education for me.”

Smith worked for the New York Times for 26 years, serving as a national and foreign correspondent. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 as part of the team that broke the Pentagon Papers, revealing government lies about the Vietnam War. He won the prize again in 1974 for his coverage of Russia and Eastern Europe.

Smith has authored several best-selling books and produced 20 award-winning programs for PBS.

With a house on Orcas Island, he said he has visited Kitsap County numerous times, attending festivals and such.

The secret to good journalism, he told me, is to tell fascinating stories that use captivating pictures while explaining the “nitty gritty” of government policy and regulation.

“We want the topics to be interesting and entertaining and educational for people while pushing the frontier of their knowledge,” he said.

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Officials will stick with native oysters in Chesapeake Bay

Non-native oysters will not be introduced to Chesapeake Bay, officials announced this week.

The idea of bringing in one or more species of oysters that come from Asian stocks could have created commercial opportunities while filtering massive amounts of pollution, according to proponents.

But uncertainty about what the oysters would ultimately do to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem resulted in the no-go decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and secretaries of natural resources for Maryland and Virginia, according to a news release from the Corps.

Of course we can’t go back to the 1920s in Puget Sound or Hood Canal, but what would have happened if authorities decided back then not to introduce the Pacific oyster, which originated in Asia?

You can safely argue that the shellfish industry in Washington state would not be what it is today without the big Pacific oysters we see on our beaches. Under the right conditions, these oysters grow in massive quantities.

On the other hand, if we had to rely on only the native Olympic oysters and we noticed a precipitous decline in their numbers, maybe people would have done more to reduce the pollution and other problems that decimated the Olympias throughout Puget Sound.

At this time, restoring the Olympia oysters seems as much of a challenge as restoring native oysters to Chesapeake Bay. But Puget Sound Restoration Fund is working hard to do just that.

For added details, see NOAA’s Web page on the proposed oyster introduction or read stories by Washington Post writer David A. Fahrenthold, Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy Wheeler and Virginia Pilot reporter Scott Harper.

Frustration over Chesapeake Bay moves to federal court

As expected, and reported here in October, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has reached the end of its rope, filing a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to enforce the Clean Water Act.

CBF President William C. Baker said the only reasonable way to clean up the bay is by getting the EPA to take firm enforcement action against polluters. For those of us in the Puget Sound region, see my entry about the lessons that can be learned from the Chesapeake.

“We have asked that EPA accept its responsibility under the Clean Water Act,” Baker said in a prepared statement. “EPA must impose a legally binding pollution reduction budget (or cap) that will restore water quality,”

“While discussions have occurred, we have not been able to resolve our claims during the 60-day notice period,” he continued. “Despite EPA’s assertions to the contrary, CBF believes that after 25 years of failed policies the only way to ensure that EPA does its job is to have a court order requiring it.”

Baker also has recorded a video message for supporters of the bay.

Sara Michael, a reporter with the Baltimore Examiner, quoted Benjamin Grumbles, EPA’s assistant administrator for water, as saying the agency is committed to working with its partners to clean up the Bay.

“We’ve had several good discussions with CBF on ways to accelerate and sustain progress recently,” Grumbles said in a statement, “and we hope the lawsuit doesn’t divert energy and attention away from the Bay’s watersheds and tributaries to courtrooms and lawyers.”

A copy of the lawsuit (4.9 mb) can be download from the CBF Web site.

Supporters of the lawsuit and advocates for bay cleanup are interviewed in audio files that can be downloaded from the CBF Web site. Speakers include Ken Smith, president of the Virginia State Waterman’s Association; Bernie Fowler, retired Maryland senator; and Harry Hughes, former governor of Maryland.

Chesapeake continues to offer lessons for Puget Sound restoration

Happy New Year!

You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting many entries lately. I’ve been on vacation since the beginning of the snow — officially since the beginning of last week. I will return to full speed on Monday.

Meanwhile, I’ve been watching developments on the environmental front and will try to catch up on some of the bigger issues when I get back. I’d like to discuss, for example, some of President-elect Obama’s staff positions related to water and the environment.

For now, I’d like to call your attention to a disturbing Washington Post story about Chesapeake Bay, then I’d like to talk about implications for the restoration of Puget Sound.

The Post piece begins:

Government administrators in charge of an almost $6 billion cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay tried to conceal for years that their effort was failing — even issuing reports overstating their progress — to preserve the flow of federal and state money to the project, former officials say.

The cleanup, which had its 25th anniversary this month, seems doomed to miss its second official deadline for achieving major reductions in pollution by 2010.

The story, by David A. Fahrenthold, goes on to say that the Chesapeake Bay Program failed to achieve the political will to reduce pollution. So how did officials in the Environmental Protection Agency and other organizations respond? They fudged the data to show greater progress than what was actually taking place.

Officials did not have good monitoring data to measure progress. So they used computer models to show what should be taking place. Richard Batiuk, the EPAs’ current associate director for science for Chesapeake Bay, said exaggeration was never intentional. Officials simply did not use the models correctly.

When scientists finally caught up with the truth across the sprawling Chesapeake Bay watershed, which covers parts of five states, the price tag for cleanup was $28 billion. Officials realized they had no real plan to meet such a financial and public relations challenge. At the same time, it became clear that the goal of cleaning up the bay by 2010 could not be met — but nobody wanted to be the one to say so.

Ann Pesiri Swanson, executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said she suspected as early as 1997 that public statements were too optimistic. The situation became more clear as time went on.

“I think that, by 2005, 2006, you know, we should have made more . . . perhaps [we] could have recognized it more publicly,” she was quoted as saying.

In 2004, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that computer modeling and a lack of real-world data “downplays the deteriorated condition of the bay” and paints too-rosy of a picture.

That’s when I began paying closer attention to Chesapeake Bay and comparing it to efforts taking place in Puget Sound. See my stories from Sept. 17 and Sept. 18, 2006. We’ve all learned a great deal more over the past two years.

So what are the lessons to be learned from Chesapeake Bay?

I believe there are many. Above all, the people of Puget Sound must understand where things stand and what is at stake. We must rely on scientific conclusions based on real-world monitoring. Politics must not get ahead of the science — which is to say that most, if not all, actions should be analyzed for their costs and benefits to the ecosystem.

Bob Benze of Silverdale recently wrote a piece for the Seattle Times bemoaning the lack of science brought to bear on the recently adopted Puget Sound Action Agenda. He points out that legislative deadlines forced remedies to be proposed before scientific teams could validate those efforts.

Much of what Bob says is very legitimate, but one could argue that scientists have a general idea about what needs to be done. So taking actions before completing a full scientific evaluation may not be a waste of money. It may be a way to keep Puget Sound from slipping further behind while scientists catch up. Above all else, scientists need data to work with. Much monitoring has been done, but more is needed.

I think Bill Ruckelshaus, chairman of the Leadership Council of the Puget Sound Partnership, has a good grasp of the situation. He has talked about the vital need to measure and report progress. This is one of the big lessons from Chesapeake.

Here are some other lessons I’ve learned: Let the scientists do their jobs; be willing to pay for monitoring; be thoughtful about how progress is measured; be honest with all appraisals; and let the public know the truth, no matter what the repercussions may be.

Frustration boils over for Chesapeake Bay efforts

Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other environmental groups are on the verge of suing the federal Environmental Protection Agency for failing to do its part in cleaning up the expansive bay.

Sunrise over Chesapeake Bay // Kitsap Sun

Foundation President Will Baker called the EPA an “absent partner” in restoring the waterway, according to a story by Timothy Wheeler in the Baltimore Sun.

The federal lawsuit, to follow an official notification to the EPA, will demand that the agency appropriate enough money to do its part in cleaning up the bay, which includes enforcement of federal laws.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation
offers a video and several links to information on its Web site.

“People are fed up with the government’s failure to reduce pollution in this national treasure,” Baker was quoted as saying. “We have no other course of action left but to go to court and try to get EPA to comply with its own Clean Water Act.”

While the lawsuit targets the EPA, officials acknowledge that Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia also failed to achieve their cleanup goals as required by the agreement they signed. They are not targeted, however, because environmental leaders believe they have made “good-faith efforts.”

Officials involved in the Puget Sound Partnership often say they are trying to avoid a repeat of the troubled efforts to restore Chesapeake Bay. Measuring progress step-by-step after setting priorities is seen as one difference in the Puget Sound effort.

It’s interesting to think that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is going after the EPA, when the agency is playing only a minor part in the Puget Sound effort. On the other hand, we don’t have more than one state government to fuss with here. Assuming the governor, Legislature and a majority of the people are on board with the Puget Sound Partnership, dealing within one state can be a good thing. (On the other hand, we sometimes forget that we are sharing waters with another country — Canada.)

Two years ago, I spent some time in the Chesapeake Bay region, meeting the people and comparing the issues to those in Puget Sound. My stories may provide some background for you as this issue rises to national attention.

Dying Bay, Dying Ways

Lessons from Chesapeake: When talk is not enough