When it comes to restoring Puget Sound, Ecclesiastes seems appropriate: "What has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." On April 25, Robert McClure reported in the Post-Intelligencer that scientists had just ripped into the Puget Sound Partnership's "discussion draft" on water quality. "For a quarter-century, government agencies have been birthing plans to rescue ecologically ailing Puget Sound," McClure wrote. "They didn't work. And neither will the latest blueprint, a brand-new stab at the task unveiled by a brand-new agency that fails to deal with the biggest source of pollutants entering the Sound, leading scientists charged on Friday."
The Partnership's draft, McClure wrote, "devotes just one tentative paragraph to what scientists advising the agency identified as the best solution: 'low-impact development.' That involves steps such as 'green roofs' that soak up rainwater, 'rain gardens' that intercept water before it flows onto hard surfaces, cisterns, and porous pavement that allows rainwater to soak into the ground. 'It's as disappointing to some of you as it is to us not to see those (concepts) pop up as action items,' said Derek Booth, a stormwater expert with Stillwater Sciences."
Where have we read this before? In November 2006, McClure and Lisa Stiffler reported that 14 scientists had signed a letter criticizing the earlier Partnership's approach to stormwater, and calling, among other things, for the widespread use of low-impact development. According to Stiffler and McClure, the scientists had "expressed 'little hope' for the restoration of the Sound unless the draft recommendations on stormwater [. . .] are strengthened [. . .]. 'All of us signed on to that letter because we do feel strongly that the traditional approaches to stormwater have not been successful in actually protecting stream ecosystems,' said Derek Booth, a geologist with the consulting group Stillwater Sciences."
The scientists who signed the 2006 letter had exchanged e-mails about the 2008 discussion draft before April 25, and the general sense of the group, says Dave Montgomery, University of Washington professor of earth and space sciences, was that they wondered whether or not Puget Sound Partnership had even read the 2006 letter. After Montgomery, who directs the UW's Quaternary Research Center, read the P-I article, he said, "Sounds like we need to send them the same letter again."
The Partnership had already pushed back its ambitious deadline for an "Action Agenda" — the to-do list that will guide Puget Sound restoration efforts and serve as the basis for new regulation and funding — from September to December. Partnership officials had said earlier that the deadline might slip. People who were otherwise willing to give them the benefit of the doubt said that would be a bad idea; among other things, it would leave little time to build support for bills at the legislative session that starts in January. We'll see.
Jim Karr, University of Washington emeritus professor of fisheries, says that the current scientific approach is "very 60s and 70s. It's like the people who are doing all this haven't learned anything in the last 30 or 40 years."
Controlling stormwater may be crucial to any real solution for Puget Sound's many problems, but he suggests it's not the holy grail. "I hope this doesn't come to mean, 'if we can just get the stormwater right, everything will be okay,'" says Karr, who was the last director of the UW's now-defunct Institute for Environmental Studies. The current approach "fails to recognize the relationships" among issues, he explains. "It's as if habitat is separate from biology is separate from water quality."
John Lombard, a signer of the 2006 letter and author of Saving Puget Sound, says he's disappointed that "neither the land use nor the stormwater papers even mentions the economic issues of subsidies for environmental degradation or the ultimate need for a transfer of wealth from urban to rural areas for ecological investments ... The land use paper talks about the need for landowner incentives, but offers no fresh ideas about what they should be."
"I'm growing pessimistic," Lombard says, "that the Partnership has the capacity — either in political courage or in truly appreciating the long-term challenges facing the Sound — to offer fresh, bold ideas for what we should do. The Topic Forums have been, at best, a missed opportunity; at worst (witness the stormwater paper), an early signal that the Partnership doesn't have what it takes."
Has anything really changed? Partnership executive director David Dicks says it has. He suggests that even a scathing criticism of the draft does not equal a scathing criticism of the process. The document was a draft of a draft of a draft, he says, and the process is designed to "create a discussion." Obviously, the attempt has been "wildly successful."
Traditionally, Dicks points out, "we'll go into a room and decide what we want to do," run through a lengthy but meaningless "public involvement" process, then do just what they had decided to do anyway. The Partnership, however, actually expects to modify its plans based on outside comments. There isn't time to do a conventional public involvement show before December, he concedes, but anyway, that's not how the Partnership wants to do business.
Dicks doubts the Partnership will ever get all the experts to agree on all the details, but he thinks it should be able to get broad agreement on broad themes. Haven't people already identified the big problems and big solutions? Dicks thinks we don't know as much as some people assume: It's easy to find a strong opinion, but often, he says, "When you really parse through it and deal with it in a scientific way, there's not a lot of there there."
Dicks says he has worked to address "lessons learned" with Kathy Fletcher and Naki Stevens, People for Puget Sound's executive director and director of programs, respectively, who served on — and Fletcher chaired — the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority in the 1980s, during the last save-the-Sound crusade. The lesson he came away with, Dicks says, is that they may have spent too much time coming up with a great plan, but not enough time with legislators making sure it would get passed.
Looking forward to next year's long legislative session, Dicks wants to capitalize on the current levels of interest and political support, but not push too hard for the big money that virtually everyone believes will be necessary sooner or later. Some environmental groups talk about putting something before voters next fall, Dicks says, but he's not so sure that would be a good idea. Given the current state of the economy — and the current public mood — he's not sure any new tax measure would pass. Besides, if only 25 percent of the people realize there's anything wrong with Puget Sound, getting money to fix it would be a hard sell.
"A broader dedicated funding source" — without which many people think a long-term effort to restore the Sound can't possibly succeed — "is at least a possibility," Dicks says. Even if that's too much to hope for next year, he thinks it may be possible to pass significant legislation that doesn't carry a steep price tag, and it may be possible to align current state spending to further the Action Agenda. "We spend a lot of money now," Dicks says. The state already invests something like $250 million a year in programs that are supposed to benefit Puget Sound. It's impossible to tell exactly how much goes or should go to the Sound, but the number is obviously large, and just channeling that flow of cash in specific directions could have a big effect.
"We don't want to miss this window because there's a lot of momentum built up. I'm a big believer in momentum," Dicks says, so "we're going to go as hard and as fast as we can."
Even most of the Partnership's critics continue to give Dicks high marks. "The director really wants to do some good things," Karr says. But some suggest that the Partnership itself is so fixated on maintaining a broad consensus that it can't look beyond business as usual. "It's just assumed that everything that everybody's ever been doing is good," Karr says.
It's easy to be cynical. In fact, if you don't remember all the times government has over-promised and under-delivered on "saving" Puget Sound, you're either very young or starting to lose it. And optimism isn't cheap. The state, counties, cities and utility districts have already spent billions. Yet, where does cynicism lead? Sure, it's time for the state to put up or shut up, but shut up implies give up — and does anyone really want that?