Puget Sound perennial

Washington's magnificent inland sea is back at the top of the region's to-do list. But while virtually everybody yearns to do something about pollution, there is neither political nor scientific consensus as to what exactly is wrong, let alone what to do about it.
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Washington's magnificent inland sea is back at the top of the region's to-do list. But while virtually everybody yearns to do something about pollution, there is neither political nor scientific consensus as to what exactly is wrong, let alone what to do about it.

Last week, it was The Seattle Times' turn to crank out the obligatory 10-part series on the ecological demise of Puget Sound. (OK, so it was four parts.) Several of their finest reporters and artists donned their rubber boots and waded into the challenge, delivering new tales of woe from the shores of Washington's inland sea.

It was good, smart, important journalism. Alas, each year it gets more difficult to find new ways to say: Gee folks, Puget Sound ain't getting any better.

I know, because I've been there. Over my 30 years at the Times, I worked on several save-the-Sound series, most recently with some of the same reporters who delivered last week. I continue to write about it because the Sound remains the primary reason I choose to live here.

Still, one gets discouraged. Consider the comments of selected experts in the concluding installment in the Times series. David Dicks, director the Puget Sound Partnership: "We have a lot of studies, a lot of information ... but we have to knit it together into a strategy ..." Or Kathy Fletcher, director of People for Puget Sound: "We are in a race against time ... We need to grab the urgency of the problem and deal with the fact that there is a lot of disbelief that we are going to make a difference ..."

These are genuine expressions of concern that also underscore the problem — a complete lack of specifics, with utterly no agreement about what's wrong and what we need to do about it. What is it about Puget Sound that seems to defy solutions?

The list of suspects begins with us, the people who live here and lack the political will to fix it — or so goes the argument. But wait a second! Public opinion surveys suggest that people understand that the Sound is in trouble, that it will cost money to fix it, and they are willing to pay. And we have paid. Over the past three decades or more, state and local taxpayers have coughed up billions of dollars for salmon restoration, pollution controls, sewage treatment plants, research, and more.

An important precedent was set in the 1960s, when government cleaned up Lake Washington, which had been turned into a cesspool by countless sewage outfalls around its perimeter. The solution was the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, Metro for short, which started as a regional sewer agency empowered to build a sewer system around the lake and ship the crap elsewhere — to Puget Sound.

In the mid-1980s, when I worked on my first Puget Sound crusade, local government decided to spend a billion dollars to build a modern sewage treatment plant at West Point, on the Magnolia neighborhood waterfront. The feds had said we didn't have to, because the Sound is so deep and its currents so powerful that sewage is efficiently diluted. But local pols decided to build it anyway, and homeowners paid for it. Now King County, which has since merged with Metro, plans to build another treatment plant — at roughly three times the cost. And ratepayers are going along with the program.

We can always blame the other guys, the cigar-smoking special interests who call the shots in Olympia. But that doesn't seem to be the problem, either. The state has cut back commercial and sport fishing, despite the lobbyists' protests. Pulp mills and other waterfront industries have been shut down, and those that remain are under tougher scrutiny.

So maybe the problem is, as Fletcher puts it, the "fragmentation of decision making." While Puget Sound is governed mostly by the state, it's also affected by at least eight counties, scores of cities, hundreds of special utility districts, and more. And we've learned that it is part of a larger "Salish Sea" that includes the San Juan Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Canadian waters.

But the greatest obstacle is not political complexity but the biological complexity of the Sound, and the scientific uncertainty that comes with it. It is not just an ecosystem but a web of overlapping ecosystems that invite oversimplification and defy understanding.

For all our best efforts, Puget Sound remains something of a black box. We assess its health by taking water samples and counting fish pulled up on hooks or nets. Sparkling blue at the surface, it turns pitch dark less than 100 feet down. And just offshore from downtown Seattle, the depths reach 900 feet. We have very little understanding of what lives there, or how the ecosystem works.

A generation ago, people were energized in part by accounts of gray whales washing up dead on Northwest beaches. Those images helped fuel the efforts to upgrade sewage treatment plants. Only later did we learn that the whales' deaths probably had nothing to do with pollution, and that gray whale populations were healthy and increasing.

More recently, scientists have paid more attention to what's happening on and near the shores of the Sound — shopping malls and suburban developments that pave over wetlands believed to be crucial to the saltwater ecology. But those linkages are not well understood.

All these uncertainties contribute to a breakdown between science and politics. Marine biologists and oceanographers are comfortable with uncertainty; they understand that the scientific process is endless, that whatever they learn merely becomes a hypothesis for the next round of investigation.

This does not work well for governors or legislators who need to decide how to spend the next billion dollars on Puget Sound restoration.

And it drives the rest of us nuts. We yearn for understandable causes and effects, heroes and villains. We want science to provide us the evidence we need to ban that next shopping mall, to shut down fishing altogether, to build better sewage treatment plants, or preserve wetlands.

And the darned scientists simply won't provide that convenient road map. On the contrary, with each new breakthrough, each new level of understanding, Puget Sound appears more complex and the solutions less obvious.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Ross Anderson

Ross Anderson is a former Seattle Times reporter who now lives in Port Townsend.