Restoring Puget Sound: It's the land use, stupid!

The Puget Sound Partnership has produced its draft action agenda, tempered by the fiscal realities of the coming Legislature. It locates the real challenge: how we treat the land around the Sound.
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The Puget Sound Partnership has produced its draft action agenda, tempered by the fiscal realities of the coming Legislature. It locates the real challenge: how we treat the land around the Sound.

'ꀝIt'ꀙs all land use,'ꀝ Puget Sound Partnership chair Bill Ruckelshaus said early last year, talking about the problem of restoring Puget Sound. Looking at the Partnership'ꀙs draft action agenda, you see that concept has finally hit home.

You also see that key recommendations made repeatedly by a group of dissident scientists have been taken to heart (or arrived at independently; who cares?). Critics may still say that there'ꀙs too much agenda and not enough action, but in the real world, action will depend on the Legislature. The Partnership comes up with a final version of its agenda on December 1. That'ꀙs three months later than originally advertised. Does it leave enough time to build support in the legislative session that starts on January 12? Everyone connected with the enterprise believes that this year'ꀙs legislative decisions will be crucial.

Taking even a cursory look at the draft, you see that it'ꀙs as much about western Washington'ꀙs rivers, floodplains, and estuaries as it is about what most people think of as Puget Sound. Of course it is. The quality and quantity of freshwater habitat is critical to salmon and, indirectly, to the orcas that eat them. (Scientists announced recently that seven members of Puget Sound'ꀙs endangered orca population have died or disappeared in the past year, matching the decline of Pacific salmon populations on which they feed.) The quality and quantity of fresh water flows are also critical to the overall health of the Sound.

A lot of people'ꀙs minds clearly haven'ꀙt 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. 'ꀜFloodplain restoration presents our best opportunity to provide salmon with sanctuaries where their interests would not be sacrificed to human interests over the next century,'ꀝ writes University of Washington geologist David Montgomery. Montgomery argues that 'ꀜletting rivers and floodplains revert to a more natural state may sound radical, but this strategy could be implemented through floodplain-buyout programs, a ban on development within historically active river corridors, or by simply stopping direct and indirect subsidies for levee maintenance and controlling bank erosion.'ꀝ

In order to accomplish that, writes John Lombard in Saving Puget Sound, .'ꀜwe must accept a substantial transfer of wealth from urban areas to ecologically more important rural areas.'ꀝ Lombard explains that 'ꀜtaken as a whole, urban taxpayers far outnumber rural taxpayers, while investments in ecological conservation must target rural areas, where the large majority of our best habitat remains." He then adds, "The science is clear that urban areas cannot support the diversity and abundance of native fish and wildlife that rural areas can (if that obvious point even needs documenting). We still may invest in urban natural areas to improve our quality of life and minimize the harm urban areas do to larger ecosystems. But we must invest in rural areas if we are to save our natural heritage in this region.'ꀝ Once again, it's all land use.

The action agenda doesn'ꀙt target specific rural investments, much less create a mechanism for making them, but its 'ꀜPriority A'ꀝ is to 'ꀜprotect intact ecosystem processes, structures, and functions.'ꀝ It suggests that 'ꀜpermanent protection of intact habitat can translate to dedicated networks of open spaces, preserves, wildlife corridors, functional working resource lands, and nearshore and estuarine environments, making this a cornerstone of the Puget Sound protection strategy. Protection tools include regulatory programs and acquisition programs, including the outright purchase of property or partial acquisition of development rights or conservation easements.'ꀝ

The day after the Partnership released its draft, executive director David Dicks said he had been reading Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'ꀙs history, The Coming of the New Deal. Schlesinger recounts a story in which FDR'ꀙs first Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace, complains that the ambitious young New Dealers working under him think the Department Agriculture is really 'ꀜthe department of everything.'ꀝ

Dicks was making the point that the Sound'ꀙs problems stem from the whole complex fabric of life in western Washington, and that the solutions will ultimately have to address that complexity. The day before, on Steve Scher'ꀙs KUOW talk show, he had suggested that improving the quality of Seattle schools was one way tor restore the Sound. He had been only half joking. If you want to save the salmon and the orcas that eat them and preserve clean water and natural flows, you have to keep people from developing every square foot between the mountains and the beach. To do that, you have to concentrate growth in cities. If you want people to live in cities, you have to make urban housing affordable, as the Cascade Land Conservancy recognizes. And, yes, you probably have to improve urban schools.

Dicks says this is the first time that a governmental organization has actually committed itself to preserving the parts of the Puget Sound ecosystem that still work. Non-profits have done it, but government has been slow to jump onto the bandwagon.

Government has, of course, preserved western Washington land and land uses for other reasons. In 1979, King County bought development rights to 13,000 acres of farmland. (Nearly 30 years later, it'ꀙs not all still being farmed, but it'ꀙs still open space.) The action agenda implies doing such things on a much broader scale, partly to preserve farmland but ultimately to save the floodplains that are key to healthy salmon and to ecosystem function.

The best time to buy land and development rights would have been at least 20 years ago, during the first big push to 'ꀜsave'ꀝ Puget Sound. Second best would be as soon as possible. Pavement keeps spreading. Prices keep rising. The purchases of land and rights should rise, too, to the top of the list.

The to-do list in the action agenda is lengthy, and Dicks says the Partnership won'ꀙt prioritize them one through one hundred, but he personally would like to see, say, a top 25. Some are more important than others. And sequence counts. (Think CPR. If you don'ꀙt get that airway open, the chest compressions won'ꀙt really matter.)

If the agenda lacks priorities, it does offer benchmarks, some of which make more sense than others. We'ꀙll know we'ꀙve succeeded if we find, among other things, two to four viable chinook runs in each of five sub-areas; forest covering at least 90 percent of the landscape that it covered in 2001; eelgrass covering as much area as it did historically; and another 10,000 acres of commercial shellfish beds on which harvesting is allowed.

One can certainly take issue with some of these standards. For instance, is an expansion of commercial shellfish beds a reasonable public goal? It'ꀙs conventional to confuse the welfare of bivalves with the welfare of people who harvest them, but exactly why the public should shell out tax dollars for the sake of this particular private industry isn'ꀙt clear.

In addition to establishing benchmarks, the action agenda calls for a healthy dose of monitoring. Dicks says this represents the first commitment to make sure that what we'ꀙre doing actually works. Monitoring isn'ꀙt sexy. It takes resources away from actually doing something. And it may tell you things you'ꀙd rather not know. But it'ꀙs the only way to make sure you'ꀙre not throwing good money after bad.

Of course, given limited resources, a dollar spent on monitoring is a dollar not spent on something else. 'ꀜIt means we do fewer projects,'ꀝ Dicks says, but he'ꀙs willing to pay that price.

Taking another page from the arguments of the Partnership'ꀙs scientific critics, the action agenda calls for expanded use of 'ꀜlow impact development'ꀝ or LID, which employs landscaping, green roofs, natural vegetation and other means, rather than simply a traditional system of pipes and treatment plants, to control stormwater. (When the Partnership released its draft agenda, it simultaneously announced a research finding that 52 million pounds of toxic chemicals enter the Sound every year, carried mainly by stormwater.) Preserving or restoring natural flows provides the best hope of minimizing damage. Dicks suggests that a commitment to LID is probably a foregone conclusion, whatever the Partnership says. A couple of months ago, the state Pollution Control Hearings Board (PCHB) said that LID represents the 'ꀜall known and reasonable technology'ꀝ standard (AKART) required by state water quality law.

'ꀜMany leading scientists concluded in a paper submitted to the Puget Sound Partnership . . . that the problem of stormwater must be addressed in the land use context if the health of Puget Sound, the species that inhabit it, and its various important beneficial uses to the region, are to be protected and/or recovered,'ꀝ the PCHB said. 'ꀜThe group concluded that: 'ꀘWe have well documented evidence that the impairment associated with stormwater runoff is primarily a land use problem, and that we cannot fully mitigate its effects if we approach it only site-by-site. We know . . . that current site-by-site development techniques that result typically in wholesale loss of vegetation, compaction of native soils and connected impervious surfaces can and should be improved upon significantly if we are to address stormwater problems.'ꀙ'ꀝ

LID will, of course, cost a bundle, as will virtually everything else. The draft agenda calls for another $200 million to $300 million in the next two years. This isn'ꀙt a great time to ask for cash. But Dicks says the Partnership doesn'ꀙt need new money. He'ꀙs talking about reallocating money that government already spends.

For the longer term, Partnership proposals include: developing ecosystem service markets to redirect existing and new spending toward more cost-effective compliance; establishing a Puget Sound-wide improvement district to generate and distribute revenue to projects; and creating a dedicated state revenue source to provide a sustained source of funding for projects and programs.

What are the chances? Clearly the Partnership hasn'ꀙt yet raised public consciousness of Puget Sound'ꀙs problems to a point at which it can count on public support for radical and/or expensive solutions. At this point, half a loaf — or, perhaps, half a salmon — is the most anyone can reasonably expect. But looking down the road, nobody thinks it will be enough.


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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.