Last week, the U.S. District Court
in Seattle ruled that that by blocking salmon streams with culverts under roads and highways, Washington has violated the treaty tribes' rights
to catch salmon. It points up an embarrassing fact. This region has a long history of failing to honor its own pious words about protecting the Puget Sound ecosystem
, and that doesn't bode well for ambitious new plans to save Puget Sound.
Judge Ricardo Martinez reasoned that federal treaties reserve to the tribes a right to catch
salmon, not merely to fish, and that by destroying or diminishing salmon runs with culverts, the state is violating that right. Violating treaty rights is old news, but no older than violating, or giving people permission to ignore, laws against killing salmon. Ever since Washington became a state – ever since it became a territory – laws have forbidden anyone to block a salmon stream. Nevertheless, the state has built and allowed other people to build culverts that block fish passage during low water periods, making thousands of stream miles inaccessible to salmon. (Private culverts weren't an issue in the litigation, but they're a big part of the problem.)
The state has been chipping away at its culvert problem since 1991, but it has shown no urgency. Eight years ago, the Center for Natural Resource Policy Analysis
at the University of California-Davis found "thousands of potentially impassable fish-blocking culverts in Washington state" and quoted the state Department of Fish and Wildlife's own prediction that at then-current levels of funding and commitment, "it will take over 75 years just to inventory all the fish-blocking culverts statewide." The center concluded that the "only feasible" hope for lighting a fire under the state "may lie with various interest groups or members of the general public to hold the agency or those that own impassable culverts accountable." That's what the tribes seem to have done in court.
So it seems reasonable to ask, as the Puget Sound Partnership
holds its first meeting
in Bremerton today and tomorrow, Aug. 30-31: How can we keep the legislation that created the partnership, and which launched Gov. Chris Gregoire's campaign to restore the Sound, from becoming as irrelevant as the laws that might have kept the state from installing those culverts?
Clearly, if Washington
is serious about restoring the Sound's ecosystem, it will have to make public agencies put their money - and their deeds - where their mouths are. Bill Ruckelshaus
, who chairs the Puget Sound Partnership's governing Leadership Council, says that these agencies will have to buy into the partnership's "action agenda" - due next year - and then the region will have to hold them accountable.
Accountable is the key word. The legislation that created the partnership last spring says that the group must "determine accountability ... for performance" and "oversee the efficiency and effectiveness of money spent." Again, pious words. However, the agency has been given no enforcement power and no control over funding. It can condition the use of dollars that pass through its own hands, but beyond that, it can only tell the governor and Legislature whether or not other money is used in ways consistent with the action agenda.
Weakness in collecting data and holding accountable such a complicated project may be the fatal flaw in these efforts. In other places where people have undertaken vast ecosystem restoration, accountability has been conspicuously absent. Ruckelshaus notes that when the Government Accountability Office appraised efforts to clean up Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes, a lack of accountability was its main finding. As a Washington Post
article summarized the GAO's Chesapeake conclusions in November 2005, "[t]he government agency leading the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay has consistently overstated its progress while minimizing threats to the bay and its own failures to address them."
Anu K. Mittal, the GAO's director for natural resources and the environment, told Congress that the Chesapeake Bay program had not developed a way to assess overall progress. The main means of tracking progress, the State of the Chesapeake Bay
reports, "did not provide effective and credible information. ... The credibility of these reports had been undermined because the program had commingled actual monitoring data with results of program actions and a predictive model, and the latter two tended to downplay the deteriorated condition of the bay. Moreover, the Bay Program's reports were prepared by the same program staff who were responsible for managing the restoration effort, which led to reports that projected a rosier picture of the bay's health than may have been warranted."
Evaluating the Great Lakes effort, the GAO said four years ago that the "Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement ... calls for establishing a monitoring system to measure restoration progress and assess the degree that the United States and Canada are complying with the goals and objectives of the agreement. Implementation of this provision has not progressed to the point that overall restoration progress can be measured or determined based on quantitative information. Recent assessments of overall progress, which rely on a mix of quantitative data and subjective judgments, do not provide an adequate basis for making an overall assessment."
"One of the things
that I think has plagued the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes" efforts, says David Dicks
, named last week as the Puget Sound Partnership's first executive director, is that "they got a lot of resources before they knew what they were trying to do." In other words, the science lagged the money. Dicks thinks it's crucial for the partnership to get the science right before it spends much money. After all, he says, "the GAO will be knocking on our
door in a couple of years," and it would be nice to get things right.
"If we just say, 'go out and do good stuff,'" Dicks suggests, "that's not good enough." He hopes "we can be very precise and have the scientists come up with a road map." So far, he thinks a lot of efforts fit a description by Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound: "random acts of kindness."
In theory, good science will enable the Puget Sound restoration effort to benefit from "adaptive management" - which basically boils down to learning from experience. You try something, see if it works, and if it doesn't, you try something else. What could be simpler? The problem is that someone must actually look to see if it works, and someone must actually change course if it doesn't.
Even when evidence suggests that something isn't working, inertia and professional self-interest keep most agencies cruising down the same dead-end paths. Ruckelshaus notes that it's hard for people to admit that what they've been doing for years has been a waste of time, so it's hard for them to change course.
Kai Lee, who taught
environmental studies at the University of Washington and represented Washington on the Northwest Power Planning Council before he went east to direct the Williams College Center for Environmental Studies, has written that "[a]daptive management ... formulates management policies as experiments that probe the responses of ecosystems as people's behavior in them changes. ... In conducting these experiments we aim to learn something about the ecosystem's processes and structures, and we seek both to design better policies and to contrive better experiments. ... [E]xperiments can surprise the experimenter, and one mark of a good scientist is that she recognizes surprise and pursues its implications. This has not been considered the mark of a good manager, however, who is rewarded instead for steadfast pursuit of objectives."
So managers do not feel pressure to make sure that what they're doing actually works. Around Puget Sound, Ruckelshaus thinks we do OK with "implementation monitoring" – that is, checking to see whether an agency or private entity actually does what it's supposed to do - but not so well with "effectiveness monitoring" - figuring out whether or not whatever is done actually produces the desired results. And no wonder: Very few governments spend enough money over long enough periods to make sure that what they're doing, and forcing others to do, actually works. At best, environmental monitoring isn't sexy. It costs money. It takes a long time. And it can tell you things you'd rather not know.
A National Research Council committee
looking at wetland mitigation projects required under the federal Clean Water Act found that data available from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were inadequate. Virtually no one monitors a site long enough to make sure that it replaces the ecological functions of a site that has been destroyed. "Monitoring is seldom required for more than five years," the committee noted, "and the description of ecosystem functions in many monitoring reports is superficial. Legal and financial mechanisms for assuring long-term protection of sites are often absent." Even five years of monitoring will seldom suffice. Up to 20 years may be needed for some wetland restoration or creation sites to achieve functional goals."
"People think 'monitoring' and their eyes kind of glaze over," Dicks says, but "if you don't know if you're making a difference on the ground, you can't show that you're spending the money wisely." He thinks "there's a sales aspect to this." The partnership will have to "convince people in the Legislature and the Congress and the foundations that [monitoring] is an essential part of getting it right."
Will such pressures for accountability actually work this time, in Puget Sound? Ruckelshaus thinks governments and large corporations can often be shamed into doing the right thing. He cites the success of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative
, which issued report cards rating government progress on ocean issues. When it gave the Bush administration a second "F" for new funding, Ruckelshaus got a call from the chair of the President's Council on Environmental Quality
, who urged him to hold off on the grade until the administration had time to announce an increased funding request. Dicks pins some hope on the partnership's ability to steer grant money toward municipalities and agencies that qualify as "partners," which should give it still more leverage.
At least those trying to save Puget Sound have the advantage of learning from places where there were a lot of pious words and not a lot of leverage.