Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)
The great crusade to restore Puget Sound is five years old. What crusade? People who've moved here since that start of the financial crisis may not recall that on May 7, 2007, Gov. Chris Gregoire stood on the shore of Puget Sound, signed the law that created the Puget Sound Partnership, and launched a campaign to restore the Sound by 2020.
The time laid out for the cleanup is more than one-third up. By now, some political insiders have grown to think badly of the Puget Sound Partnership, but most people don't think of it at all. The Sound currently inspires little or no visible leadership. It benefits from no dedicated source of money. Like many other worthy projects, Puget Sound restoration "has really suffered from this economic downturn," says the first chair of the Partnership's leadership council, Bill Ruckelshaus. What has happened to the crusade? And where do we go from here?
Neither the goals nor the timetable ever made much literal sense. Gregoire called for a Sound that was "swimmable, diggable, fishable" by the end of this decade. People swim, fish, and dig clams in it every summer now, of course. They have never stopped doing so. "Swimmable, diggable, fishable" makes a nice sound bite — and certainly a level below which one wouldn't want the health of the Sound to sink — but it would hardly constitute recovery.
And while 2020 is a nice round number, there was never a chance that whoever occupied the governor's mansion at the end of this decade would be able to announce "mission accomplished." Asked if the glass is even half full, Ruckelshaus says "I don't think it's going to be for 20 years."
And yet . . . if former President George W. Bush leaves any lasting legacy, one of the things he showed the nation and the world is that it's never too soon to announce "mission accomplished." The Sound will be clean enough when we say it's clean enough. The water will look good in any case. We can set the bar as high or low as we like.
To Gregoire's credit, she has set the bar pretty high. "We look out right now and [the Sound] looks absolutely gorgeous," she said when she signed that legislation five years ago, "and that, my friends, is what too many of our citizens see, is how gorgeous it looks from the surface." Beneath that glittering surface, "in some parts it is dying and in many places it's sick."
And now? That depends in part on your vantage point. Jay Manning, director of the Department of Ecology from 2005 to 2009 and Gregoire's chief of staff for two years after that, suggests that on the inside, state government is a lot more focused on Puget Sound than it was five years ago. "There has been a ramp-up in attention," says Manning, who now works for the Cascadia Law Group, although "whether that has had time to make any kind of difference I would frankly be skeptical." How it all looks from the outside he's not sure. "In my little world, it's still front and center," he says. But it was "never clear to me out there in the greater world that it ever got onto the radar screen."
In the insiders' world, he says, there was plenty of discussion about whether or not 2020 was realistic, but he personally figures that setting an aggressive goal was important. The job "will never be done," Manning says, much less done at the end of the decade. He suggests that "by 2020, the goal should be that we do no harm to the relatively healthy areas . . . and have made some progress in the really hammered ones."
The past few years have seen some dramatic changes — which owe little to state efforts or commitment: One Elwha River dam is down and the second is in the process of coming down. Dismantling of the Elwha dams is billed as the largest dam removal in American history. The lower dam had stood there since it was built on spec, illegally walling out anadromous fish, nearly a century ago. For the first time since 1914, salmon will have access to the unspoiled headwaters of the Elwha, which drains 20 percent of Olympic National Park.
Levees that had kept salt water from the Nisqually delta for even longer, since the late 19th century, have been demolished, letting salt water pour back into 762 acres. This may be the largest estuary restoration project in the Northwest. It, too, was accomplished with outside money, including federal salmon restoration funds, and contributions by Ducks Unlimited and the Nisqually tribe.
The Glacier gravel pit site on the shore of Maury Island has been acquired as a park, rather than developed into a big gravel mine. The legislature had refused to block the Glacier development, but the state did kick in money. King County used conservation futures tax dollars, too. But the state was hardly aggressive about preserving the site. Citizen activists, the courts, and Forterra, which brokered the sale, deserved most of the credit.
Manning points out that in some other ways, things are a lot better than they used to be. "There was just some terrible stuff" going on as recently as the 1980s, he recalls, when for example, one industrial site was leaching 50 to 60 pounds of arsenic a day into the Sound. He looks at the condo development rising beside Commencement Bay at the old Tacoma smelter site as an example of how far we've come. Other old industrial sites are being redeveloped all around the Sound, albeit with varying degrees of success. (Seattle's early-1970s development of a polluted old industrial site beside Lake Union into Gasworks Park may have started the process.)
But in general, Manning doesn't claim to know how we're we doing. Arguably, no one really knows. No one is monitoring enough to know whether or not what we're doing actually works. "If we haven't been monitoring," Ruckelshaus says, "we're just guessing." He says "you can point to individual projects . . but overall, we just don't have a comprehensive monitoring system." This is not a new situation. Monitoring is never sexy. Even in good times, "it's the hardest money to get out of the Legislature."
Of course, not all problems can be solved by shutting down an old industrial plant or tearing down a dam. Some people have started to acknowledge the complexity of what's going on in Puget Sound: That dead zone in Hood Canal? Turns out leaky septic systems aren't primarily to blame; as some scientists have known all along, the main culprit is a slug of cold, dense, oxygen-poor water from the deep ocean that tends to sit on the bottom. Not that septic effluent (or lawn fertilizer or pet waste) does the oxygen content of Hood Canal any good. But the ocean water contributes perhaps two-thirds of the problem.
We have also recognized that the failure of oyster spawn is related to acification caused by the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There's no easy fix for that one, either — although gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee argues that the local impact of acidification helps make a case for local development of carbon-free energy technologies and products.
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