Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)
I wade out over the barnacled rocks, feet protected by the thick soles of my Tevas, push through leaves and seaweed floating on a high tide, adjust my goggles, and swim out into the cold salt water of Puget Sound. I do this often in the summer. And when I do, I sometimes reflect on Gov. Chris Gregoire standing by the shore in 2007, signing legislation that created the Puget Sound Partnership, and setting the goal of a Sound that was “fishable, swimmable and diggable” by 2020.
That goal was never more than a sound — or, if you prefer, a Sound — bite. Some people swim in the Sound every summer. On my way to the beach, I passed three people fishing from a pier. Whenever the salmon are running, state ferries must blow their horns and steer around the small craft of fishermen more intent on their quarry than their personal safety.
That said, yes the Sound could use some saving. And now it seems that the Puget Sound Partnership could use a little salvation of its own.
The Partnership has been stung by a series of revelations about minor — inexcusable, but still minor — financial sins, and suggestions of both cronyism and misuse of power. This spring, the Washington State Auditor's Office found that “[t]he Puget Sound Partnership circumvented state contracting laws, exceeded its purchasing authority and made unallowable purchases with public funds.” The agency had, among other things, circumvented competitive bidding requirements — as well as a requirement to use the Attorney General's office — to hire an outside law firm, and had bought Apple computer products at retail even though they cost two-thirds more than low-end PCs and weren't compatible with state information systems.
One might consider this old news, but in a recent series of reports by John Ryan, KUOW has repeated some of the Auditor's findings. In addition, Ryan has reported that Partnership executive director David Dicks may have misused a government car and that the Partnership fired a whistleblower. Ryan's series also has questioned the role of Dicks' father, Congressman Norm Dicks.
Alluding to the KUOW reports, the Tacoma News Tribune has suggested that “Puget Sound is in serious need . . . of a cleanup agency that the public trusts. . . . On that score” the paper says, “the Puget Sound Partnership is failing. Its management practices invite skepticism and undermine its own mission to secure money for the Sound’s rescue.”
The Godfather of the Puget Sound restoration effort, former EPA head Bill Ruckelshaus, may have stepped down as chairman of the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council just in time.
Or maybe not quite in time. Ruckelshaus, who had been chair from the start and had co-chaired an earlier ad hoc group, also called the Partnership, that came up with the plan for this one, was replaced at the end of July by longtime vice-chair Martha Kongsgaard. He isn't leaving the group — which is a good thing, because no one else associated with the effort carries anything close to his stature.
Clearly, management of the Partnership has been both sloppy and cavalier in its use of tax dollars. If the allegations about the Partnership are true, one hopes some faces have turned red and perhaps some butts will be kicked.
That said, it's a sideshow. While reporting that the outside law firm had received $51,498, and implying — if you do the math — that the agency spent about $31,000 more than it should have by buying MacIntosh computer products, rather than Dell or Hewlett-Packard PCs, the Auditor's Office noted that “[f]or 2007-2009, the Partnership had an operating budget of $16,147,000.”
And that is merely the tip of the iceberg. The state spends an estimated $250 million a year for Puget Sound protection and restoration, and Congressman Norm Dicks has gotten Congress to appropriate $50 million a year for Puget Sound. “The region probably spends more than $1 billion each year to meet stormwater requirements," writes John Lombard in his 2006 book Saving Puget Sound. And no one even pretends that we have stormwater under control.
All those big numbers pale beside the additional $8 billion projected three years ago as the total cost of restoring the Sound — much less the $20 billion that some people think is a more realistic sum. The Partnership is supposed to figure out how all or much of that money should be spent. What are we getting for the dollars we're spending now? What would we get if we upped the ante? Is the Sound getting better or worse?
No one knows. And, Ruckelshaus says, no one has any way to know.
At this point, “We don't [even] know whether we're recovering more habitat than we're losing,” Ruckelshaus says. We don't know how we're doing unless we look. And we don't do a lot of looking. To know where we are and where we're heading, we'll have to do a lot more monitoring.
In his letter of resignation to Gregoire, Ruckelshaus wrote that the state should “[d]evelop a Sound-wide monitoring system that will help us track our progress against the indicators and other measures of progress necessary to recover the health of the Sound." It should also “[i]ncorporate an adaptive management system into our implementation efforts that will force rigorous oversight of our approved cleanup steps and change them if they are not working.”
Unfortunately, monitoring takes time and manpower; therefore, it costs plenty — and it's terminally unsexy. Legislators don't like to pay for it. And they don't. “It's very hard to get monitoring money even in the best of times,” Ruckelshaus says. And yet, “Legislators will [ask], 'Are we making any progress?' ”
Progress toward what?
Until the end of July, the Partnership had no concrete way to answer that. Are we getting there? Where is “there?” We already know about “swimmable.”
“Scientists just have a terrible time” settling on a limited number of ojectives, Ruckelshaus says. He recalls that the agency's draft agenda contained something like 340 separate indicators. But having that many is pretty well the same as having none, so Ruckelshaus and his colleagues sent the staff back to the drawing board. Now, the Leadership Council has approved 20 “dashboard indicators” against which it can measure progress.
These indicators are pretty standard stuff. They include marine water quality, wild chinook salmon counts, and Southern resident killer whale population trends. Did it really take three years to come up with them? Well, yes. Whether or not it should have taken so long is now beside the point. The question is where we go from here.
“The Partnership can do a better job,” Ruckelshaus says, "and I think [it] will.” Actually, now that it has come up with the ecosystem indicators, he thinks it has already started doing somewhat better.
But he doesn't pretend that all is well or even adequate.
Despite the large sums already spent on Puget Sound, “We're going to need significantly more money,” Ruckelshaus says. “Ideally, you'd have a dedicated funding source” — a mechanism that will generate money exclusively for the Sound, year after year. Right before the 2009 legislative session, the Partnership and its allies floated the idea of a 12-county district within which people could vote to tax themselves for programs that would improve the health of the Sound. The district's governing structure would be similar to Sound Transit's.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!