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Puget Sound triage

Crosscut Focus: People vs. Puget Sound.

I asked David Dicks, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, if it would ever be time to use the “T” word regarding Puget Sound. I meant “T” as in “triage.” That isn’t a concept generally applied to save-the-Sound projects, but everyone who has given the matter serious thought realizes that: a) some problems aren’t soluble; b) some feel-good projects don’t really accomplish much; c) we’ll never have enough money to do everything; so d) it makes sense to concentrate resources on the most significant projects with the greatest chances of success. Maybe triage isn’t the right word, but it’s the right concept.

Dicks said he wasn’t sure it qualified as triage, but the first two of four “draft strategic priorities” the Partnership adopted in June acknowledge a need to make choices. The first — which hasn’t been formally designated the top priority but probably qualifies as such — is to “ensure that activities and funding are focused on the most urgent and important problems facing the Sound.” The second is to “protect the intact ecosystem processes that sustain the Sound.”

Setting these two as top priorities implies a number of things. It leaves little room for, say, feel-good beach clean-up projects or the restoration of urban streams. Dicks acknowledges that such projects have an educational value for kids — and their elders — and help build political support, but they produce negligible environmental bang for large expenditures of bucks. He’d still do some such projects but not, say, an expensive daylighting of Thornton Creek through Northgate’s south parking lot.

John Lombard, author of Saving Puget Sound, writes:

I live on a tributary to Thornton Creek in north Seattle. I am a past president and active supporter of Thornton Creek Alliance. I am not saying that we should ‘write off’ urban natural areas. But we should understand the limitations of investments in those areas and set reasonable goals for them. The current project to ‘daylight’ Thornton Creek … will cost more than $10 million. I support this project, but primarily for its community development benefits. If the pot of money paying for it could be used to best serve Puget Sound as an ecosystem, I would shift that money immediately to the lower Skagit River, where it could make some real headway in the tragic conflict between farmers and environmentalists.

It also suggests that we’ll have to raise money in the cities and spend it in the country, where it’s still possible to preserve large blocks of habitat and more-or-less intact natural systems. Lombard argues (pdf), “We must accept a substantial transfer of wealth from urban areas to ecologically more important rural areas.”

Elsewhere, Lombard has written:

Taken as a whole, urban taxpayers far outnumber rural taxpayers, while investments in ecological conservation must target rural areas, where the large majority of our best habitat remains … The science is clear that urban areas cannot support the diversity and abundance of native fish and wildlife that rural areas can (if that obvious point even needs documenting). We still may invest in urban natural areas to improve our quality of life and minimize the harm urban areas do to larger ecosystems. But we must invest in rural areas if we are to save our natural heritage in this region.

Dicks agrees. He says that spending the money right where you raise it “is an 80s idea that has taken on a life of its own.”

Whether or not there will be much new money to spend anywhere remains an open question. Dicks says he has found himself at odds with environmentalists who argue the Partnership should go for broke at the 2009 legislature. What better time to put a major Puget Sound bond issue on the ballot? Dicks doesn’t think the current economic environment is likely to loosen the legislative purse strings for much of anything. Besides, he says, if most citizens still don’t think Puget Sound has a problem, any public vote on Puget Sound bonds would be DOA.

But he doesn’t write off the idea of getting money. Huge torrents of money dedicated to environmental good works already flow through government agencies and the western Washington economy. If those cash flows were channeled into projects that would help preserve and restore Puget Sound, the Partnership might not have to pass the hat for much new funding.

Look at the nearly half billion dollars that the state Department of Ecology spends each year. Or look at all the money poured down the rathole of mitigation. The state Department of Transportation spends millions on environmental mitigation for its highway projects. In 2003, the department “performed case studies on fourteen projects with a total value of $427.44 million; 18.6% of the total cost of the projects was spent on mitigation.” Three years later, they “performed case studies on seven additional projects with a total value of $641.4 million; 17.5% of the total cost … was spent on mitigation.” You do the math.

Private developers spend millions more. A few years ago, the state Department of Ecology found that mitigation projects generally cost between $10,000 and $100,000 per acre.

Most of this money is simply wasted. Perhaps “25% of it works,” Dicks says, “and that’s probably generous.” It probably is. Six years ago, a Department of Ecology study (pdf) concluded that only 13 percent of the state’s man-made wetlands were fully successful. The study examined 24 wetland creation or restoration projects — 18 in western Washington and six in eastern Washington — and found that only three were fully successful. It also found that wetland creation was a better bet than wetland enhancement, and that privately funded projects were twice as likely as publicly funded projects to succeed. When the National Academy of Sciences took a broad look at wetland mitigation in 2001, it found that many projects failed to duplicate the ecological functions of habitat they replaced, and that at best, no one knew whether or not they ultimately worked. Because there’s virtually no follow-up, developers who try to do the right thing get screwed.

Dicks suggests that instead of making developers and highway builders create expensive artificial wetlands that don’t work, we could give them the option of just sending money that could be used on projects that might actually do some good. We’d need a standard for estimating the cost of mitigation. Once we had it, a developer could still try to do it himself (only God can make a tree, perhaps, but it seems that anyone with a backhoe and a consultant can make a wetland), but he could also just pony up. To make that a more attractive option, we could fast-track projects for people willing to choose it.

The money could be used to protect and restore areas of high priority, such as estuaries or flood plains. “Floodplain restoration presents our best opportunity to provide salmon with sanctuaries where their interests would not be sacrificed to human interests over the next century,” University of Washington geologist David R. Montgomery has written. Montgomery, who is also the author of King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon, writes, “Letting rivers and floodplains revert to a more natural state may sound radical, but this strategy could be implemented through floodplain buyout programs, a ban on development within historically active river corridors, or by simply stopping direct and indirect subsidies for levee maintenance and controlling bank erosion.”

Basically, this would go a step beyond mitigation banking. As former regional EPA Administrator John Spencer explained a couple of years ago, mitigation banking works like this:

A private developer/investor will acquire an area of degraded habitat, enhance or restore it, and then be awarded credits by a governmental agency which the investor can then sell to other developers or polluters who are seeking to compensate for habitat losses in their own projects or activities. The developer/investor then uses some of the money to pay development expenses and fund a maintenance bond. He or she pockets whatever is left over.

The mitigation bank is more likely to get done, more likely to work, and more likely to receive some follow-up than an individual project. But it assumes that habitat is fungible: One can destroy the specific ecological functions of habitat in a specific place and replace it with habitat someplace else. And it takes place wherever a banking organization can get suitable land. “Mitigation banking is just another form of land development,” Spencer wrote. Mitigation occurs in places where it will not necessarily restore or preserve key natural processes.

Dicks suggests a system that would focus mitigation in the most valuable and cost-effective places.

How hard would it be to create such a system? “People say, ‘You’d have to change the Clean Water Act,'” Dicks explains. He doesn’t see that as much of a hurdle. But changing the law would only permit Washington to follow the very rational course of action that Dicks describes. Someone would still need the political will to forego feel-good projects, gore some well-fed oxen, and channel money where it will do the most good, not simply where it will buy the most votes.

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