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Evidently, most people still don't realize the Sound needs saving. The Partnership's surveys have never showed much public appreciation of the Sound's problems. And the agency's leaders have always been reluctant to push expensive solutions for problems that haven't reached public consciousness. Beyond that — and some critics suggest that the surveys have asked the wrong questions — most people who do acknowledge a problem still tend to speak in terms of "cleaning up" the Sound. Fix leaky septic systems. Clean up industrial discharges. Lay pipe to carry stormwater. But the underlying threat remains the existing pattern of land use. And, of course, no one has taken significant steps toward raising enough money to do what should be done.
The 2007 law signed with such fanfare appropriated $238 million over the next biennium for save-the-Sound programs that over a longer period were expected to cost at least $8 billion. That $8 billion was never supposed to be all new money. The Partnership is supposed to channel existing revenue streams toward programs that fit into its blueprint for the Sound. But obviously, neither the initial appropriation nor those existing revenue streams will produce enough cash. Where is the rest of the money going to come from?
Nobody knows. Most people who have given the issue much thought think the Sound needs a dedicated source of funding, something that generates money just for restoration and preservation programs. The Puget Sound Partnership went to Olympia in 2009 hoping for a statute that would enable voters in the 12 counties bordering Puget Sound to create an improvement district that could raise money for restoring the Sound. If the enabling legislation had been passed, a tax or taxes to raise money for Puget Sound would have required a vote by the improvement district’s governing body. Creation of the governing body would have required a vote by the people who lived in the 12 counties. That would have required a campaign to convince people they wanted to be taxed by yet another governmental entity.
That, in turn, would have required decisions about how the vote would be structured — and what the governmental entity would be. The Partnershp's first director, David Dicks, envisioned a system in which seven counties, including King, would have had to vote for the district. If seven or more had said yes, any county voting no would have had to go along. Counties plus the largest cities would somehow have been represented on the governing board, as they are on the board of Sound Transit.But Olympia wasn't keen on new taxes. The improvement district didn’t even come up for a vote. The idea was put aside for a more opportune time. That time hasn't come.
"The most fundamental problem we've had," says John Lombard, author of Saving Puget Sound, "is to raise adequate revenue to pay for these things." Lombard envisions a tax or taxes that force people to pay for their environmental sins. (At a panel discussion a few years ago, he mentioned a possible tax on removal of water from the natural ecosystem.) He thinks it should be possible to "get people to really recognize that our actions are having consequences and there are practical ways that we can create economic costs associated with those actions so that people do less of them." There's plenty of precedent: Lombard notes the legislative willingness to increase taxes on tobacco and alcohol over the years, and more recently to vote for soda-pop taxes. Most people realize the problems with that smoking, drinking, and consuming high-sugar beverages. "Therefore," he says, "it's the one place where they've been able to raise money. This [idea of enivronmental sin taxes] is really the same basic argument."
"I see us getting around [the current tax aversion] in two ways," Lombard says. In addition to taxing sin, he favors "looking at this as tax reform and combining a set of these kinds of environmental taxes with tax cuts . . . . .You can put this in the most simple terms: We want to tax economic bads . . . and we want to reduce taxes on economic goods."
"If we don't do it, we might as well give up," Lombard says. "If we all think we have some God-given right to contribute to the problem without paying any charge whatsover, then any discussion about how much we care about this place and want to restore it is just empty rhetoric."
Even raising money may prove less challenging than persuading people that we must change the pattern of land use around Puget Sound. ”It’s all land use,” Bill Ruckelshaus said five years ago. Gregoire agreed. She acknowledged that getting people to change patterns of land use would be a hard sell, but added that it would have been even harder earlier. It's still hard. "There certainly are points of contention" about restoring the Sound, Ruckelshaus says. "The primary one is land use." Something there is in citizens that does not like other people telling them what they can't do on their own land — especially if those other people aren't from around here. Ruckelshaus talks about "how difficult it is to draft those regulations centrally and get any degreee of enthusiasm out of the landowners." He figures that planning at the watershed level may be the way to go.
It's a dilemma: On one hand, how do you get people to buy into the process unless you let them make decisions at a local level? On the other, how do you solve a regional problem if each part of the region can go its own way — or can simply opt out?
A lot of people’s minds clearly haven’t expanded to see saving the Sound as a whole-landscape problem yet. But some scientists and activists have been trying to convince them of that for years. Everything is connected. Where should we start? University of Washington geologist David Montgomery has been arguing for years that we should start with lightly-developed flood plains. Once upon a time, local rivers meandered through braided channels, flowing beneath or around huge log jams, periodically spilling out onto the low-lying ground beside them. Now, they mostly run unimpeded through single channels, diked off from their natural floodplains. And yet, Montgomery has written, “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.”
It's crucial to think about such things long-term. The regional environmental group Forterra's basic insight is that over the next century, if nothing changes as the Puget Sound area's population doubles (as it is universally expected to do), virtually the entire landscape will be paved or sodded from salt water to the Cascades. Currently, the Growth Management Act channels development away from rural areas. But it's not foolproof. In the short run, a little development outside the lines doesn't do any harm. In the long run, it will be transformative. That's the basic premise, too, of Montgomery, a 2008 MacArthur fellow.
Nine years ago, in his book, King of Fish, Montgomery advocated turning the lightly developed floodplains into greenbelts, and letting the rivers flood them again as nature intended. We could create a network of productive habitat and public open space. We could stop subsidizing the destruction of habitat. He has modified his original idea, but not much. He still thinks that letting the floodplains flood is probably "the most cost-effective thing we could do to have a lot of people and a lot of fish share the landscape. . . I think that argument is probably just as good today as it was then." However, he no longer thinks that absolutely everyone should clear out. "The caveat of course is that some of our best farmland is also in flood plains," he says. "Today I'd do a hybrid of farms and greenbelt." However obvious a strategy of restoring flood plains seems to Montgomery, he realizes that it's not obvious to everyone else. Instead of letting the rivers flood, in many places "we're talking about building the levees up."
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