Money, politics, public relations, science: the many challenges of saving Puget Sound

Much has been made of the need to educate the public about how Washington's inland sea is in peril, but that's not the only challenge facing William Ruckelshaus and the Puget Sound Partnership.
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Enjoying the placid view of Puget Sound and downtown Seattle from a ferry. (Chuck Taylor)

Much has been made of the need to educate the public about how Washington's inland sea is in peril, but that's not the only challenge facing William Ruckelshaus and the Puget Sound Partnership.

Is it the bloom on a healthy cheek or rouge on a corpse? The glittering surface of Puget Sound tells you nothing about the health of the water column underneath. The water might be teeming with sea life or seething with toxic chemicals; it will look the same either way. Public officials grasp this, but they are having a hard time convincing their constituents. Last month, when Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire stood by the shore and signed legislation that took the first small step toward restoring the Sound's biological health by 2020, she said, "We look out right now and it looks absolutely gorgeous 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." The new law appropriates $238 million over the next biennium for save-the-Sound programs that over a longer period are expected to cost at least $8 billion. It also sets up a Puget Sound Partnership with no regulatory power, just a mission to "coordinate and lead" and to devise an "action agenda" for the campaign. The new group replaces an ad hoc Puget Sound Partnership that came up with the current plan. It absorbs the powers and functions of the state's Puget Sound Action Team. Bill Ruckelshaus, the respected first head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who co-chaired the old partnership, will chair the new body. He and Gregoire both refer to polls that suggest virtually everyone in Western Washington values a healthy Sound as a legacy for future generations and that most people think the Sound is already in good shape. How do you ask people for big bucks to solve a problem they don't know exists? Political leaders figure that job No. 1 is convincing people that there's something to save the Sound from. That doesn't sound like a hard sell. After all, the Sound's iconic species have all joined the federal endangered species list. Puget Sound chinook were listed as threatened in 1999. Southern resident killer whales were listed as threatened in 2005. Steelhead got a threatened listing earlier this year. Fish died en masse in Hood Canal in 2003 and again last year, giving rise to the idea of Hood Canal as a "dead zone." All this was well chronicled. It probably isn't safe to assume that most of your neighbors read much about Puget Sound in the newspapers or watch much about it on the TV news. While you're at it, don't assume:

  • The feds will come riding to our rescue. Much has been made of U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, getting his hands deep into the public coffers due to his seniority and Democratic control of Congress. Dicks now chairs the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Interior and the Environment and ranks as the third-most-senior majority member of the Appropriations Committee itself. He recently got $15 million appropriated for Puget Sound programs, and he has said that he won't rest until the Sound gets as much federal money as Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. That would certainly help, but only to the tune of $25 million or $30 million a year. You don't get to $8 billion by 2020 that way. Most of the money will have to be raised locally. Best bet may be a bond issue placed before voters in the 12 counties around Puget Sound.
  • "Pollution" is the main problem. James Karr, a recently retired University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences, and the last director of UW's Institute for Environmental Studies, suggests that rhetoric about "cleaning up" the Sound encourages people to ignore the other significant factors and, more importantly, interrelationships. Ruckelshaus says that land use will be the key issue. That might be a hard sell. Yes, Gregoire concedes, "but think of how hard a sell it was a decade ago."
  • Government enforces or even obeys its own laws. It doesn't. It never has. The old Puget Sound Partnership recommended no new regulation. Instead, Gregoire says, "the Puget Sound Partnership has said 'enforce the laws we have.'"
  • The well-publicized efforts to restore Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and other marquee bodies of water give us models of success. They don't. In putting together the current plan for Puget Sound, Gregoire says, "we studied all the other estuaries" where people are trying to restore habitat, and "most of them are struggling."
  • The obvious solutions will solve the obvious problems. Take the much-publicized dead zone in Hood Canal. It is easy to blame last year's fish kill on nitrates from septic tank effluent, and many people do, but it is evidently wrong. Summer upwelling in the Pacific Ocean forced a plug of cold, dense water into Hood Canal, where it pushed a residual layer of oxygen-poor water up to the surface, leaving the fish with no place to go. Nitrates from septic tanks may have contributed significantly to the oxygen depletion. So might nitrates from agriculture and from the nitrogen-fixing alder trees that have replaced the logged-off coniferous forest. Ocean circulation drives the whole thing. Freshwater runoff depleted by drought may also play a part. Keeping septic tank effluent out of Hood Canal can't be a bad thing, but it might do little or nothing to prevent future fish kills.
  • A concern for the health of Puget Sound is something new. People saw the commercial salmon catch plummet around the time of World War I. Some started worrying about industrial pollution when the first sulfite pulp mills went up in the 1920s. A concern about oil spills arose almost 40 years ago, when oil was discovered on Alaska's North Slope. It has been nearly 30 years since Tacoma's Commencement Bay was declared a Superfund site and researchers for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found toxic chemicals in the sediments and liver lesions in bottom-dwelling fish. Nineteen eighty-five was billed as Olympia's "year of Puget Sound," but all the Legislature did was make the temporary Puget Sound Water Quality Authority into a permanent, independent advisory body. The next year, it created the Centennial Clean Water Fund – raising the money by a courageous hike in the cigarette tax. (In 1990, over the protests of all the authority board members – but at the behest of industry – the state brought the authority into the Department of Ecology and reconstituted it as the Puget Sound Action team. Kathy Fletcher, who had chaired the authority, went off to found People for Puget Sound. Fletcher was the only environmentalist at the table as the old partnership formulated the current plan.)
Why should this current burst of interest produce anything more substantial? Gregoire says that in Ruckelshaus and Dicks, we have the right people in the right places at the right time. We also have a commitment, at least rhetorically, to a process that's science-based. Skeptics wonder if science will really trump politics. If it does, it might tell us some things we'd rather not hear. In fact, it already has. See David Montgomery's March op-ed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Montgomery, who is a University of Washington professor of earth and space sciences and director of the UW's Quaternary Research Center, wrote that he had been "thrilled to see the rollout of Gov. Chris Gregoire's new 'science-based' Partnership for Puget Sound – until I read beyond the executive summary." Reading farther, Montgomery found that "buried on page 43 of Appendix A was a startling admission by the partnership's own scientific working group: 'The strategies listed are not likely to be sufficient to achieve ecosystem goals.' ... [T]here it is in black and white," Montgomery wrote. "The plan won't work." Montgomery says he was "shocked ... that it was actually in the report." It was "an amazingly frank admission." Montgomery suggests that his biggest complaint about the current plan is "the lack of strategic vision. Where are we really trying to get?" he asks. "What would 'recovery' mean by 2020? You're not going to restore the landscape of 1853," when Washington became a separate territory, "so what is the target?" Gregoire has talked about a Sound that's "swimmable, fishable, and diggable." Everyone would presumably like that, but people swim, fish, and dig in Puget Sound right now, and as more and more people live farther and farther from the water, how many will have ready access to a clamming beach? How many will want to swim in that cold water, anyway? Besides, as Gregoire readily concedes, that goal is pretty anthropocentric. Montgomery is right: We haven't described where we want to go, much less laid out a plausible map for getting there. We haven't figured out how we can sustain public interest to 2020 and beyond. We haven't raised the money. Ruckelshaus has said that we need nothing less than a change in culture. Gregoire says that the surest way to change attitudes is to start with school children. They might be right. If they are, 2020 will be here before we know it.   

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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.