Saving our region: Nice plans, but...

A candid look at the efforts to preserve Puget Sound and surrounding lands discovers inconvenient truths. Population growth is not going where planned. Studies replace courageous action on Puget Sound. And land use loopholes invite blockbuster developments in rural areas.
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Salmon swimming upstream. (Wikipedia)

A candid look at the efforts to preserve Puget Sound and surrounding lands discovers inconvenient truths. Population growth is not going where planned. Studies replace courageous action on Puget Sound. And land use loopholes invite blockbuster developments in rural areas.

Looking past transient economic tremors, the big questions for our region'ꀙs appeal and prosperity two and three decades in the future haven'ꀙt gone away: Can the region grow without despoiling both our intimate and grander landscapes? Can we protect Puget Sound'ꀙs rich flora and fauna — native plants and wildlife on land and in the water — against decline and disappearance in the face of the rapid, profound changes we are working across the region?

The links among how the land and water are used and how living things respond are as inexorable in lean economic times as in boom periods. Our day-to-day actions still shape the future, even if budget deficits grab headlines and shift our attention to saving schools, health care, public safety and jobs. So let's get back to those big questions in my opening paragraph.

Start with the important actors in this play. Our four-county regional planning organization, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), tries to fashion strategies that achieve the goals of Vision 2040, adopted about a year ago. Vision 2040 believes the best pattern for growth is to locate new populations and jobs in regional centers. That puts transportation systems to efficient use and preserves rural areas for agriculture, recreation, and preservation of the natural environment.

Next, enter the Puget Sound Partnership, which issued its Action Agenda for saving Puget Sound last December. It found the top two immediate threats to Puget Sound are the alteration and loss of natural habitat and on-going pollution.

However, at these high levels of oversight and generality, gears engage slowly on specific problems. Caution constrains bold speaking. Our instincts seem to be to hide in a morass of process rather than take dramatic action for fear of making a mistake, or worse, a foe. But what we need now is action and the courage to seek public support to insist it happen. For example, an upgrade should be made to a regional sewage treatment plant in Pierce County that discharges too much nitrogen to Puget Sound. Another example: a huge and misguided housing and commercial development in rural east Snohomish County should be stopped in its tracks.

In this spirit of bold speaking, what is the news on growth in recent years? Simply put, it'ꀙs not cooperating with the plan.

Vision 2040 declared that beginning in 2000, 1.7 million people would swell the existing 3.2 million population of King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap counties to reach a total of almost 5 million people by 2040. The growth management strategy was the distribution of that population gain to specific areas of the region. For example, 32 percent of the growth was to go to the metro cities of the region (Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, Everett, and Bremerton) and just 7 percent to rural areas.

So what has happened? The new population in the region has been growing overall just as predicted. According to the estimates published by the state'ꀙs Office of Financial Management, during the year 2008 population of the region gained 50,000 people. This was the same pace as the gain of over 300,000 population from 2000 to 2007, and right on track with Vision 2040'ꀙs forecast of a total of 1.7 million new people by 2040.

But for 2008, just as for the years from 2000 to 2007, the new population failed to show up where Vision 2040 said it ought to for growth management to succeed. For example, in Pierce County in 2008, over half of the new population found itself in the unincorporated areas of the country, not Tacoma and other cities where Vision 2040 guides that in the long-term three-quarters of the population growth should occur. In Snohomish County, almost 80 percent of the county'ꀙs population growth in 2008 located itself in unincorporated areas, not in the cities where Vision 2040 suggests in that almost three-fifths of the population growth in that county should occur. In the 2008 estimate, only 10,250 new people were found in Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, Everett, and Bremerton combined.

None of this bodes well for the targets set in Vision 2040'ꀙs growth management prescription for the region to 2040. PSRC resists re-examining the population distribution targets, at least any time soon, to say nothing of spotlighting their important implications for, say, developing future transportation systems choices for the region. To its credit, PSRC staff has not kept it secret that the total growth from 2000 to 2007 in areas outside the designated Urban Growth Areas had already exceeded 50 percent of the targeted growth in those areas for the entire 40-year span to 2040.

As a corollary, the largest cities are growing much more slowly than hoped. The metro cities of Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, Everett, and Bremerton had achieved less than 10 percent of their target for growth for the 40-year span in the first seven years of plan period.

None of these huge variances from actual to plan is lost on observant people. Pierce County'ꀙs Department of Planning and Land Services, for example, wrote PSRC last December:

'ꀜ[T]he population targets contained within VISION 2040 for Pierce County are significantly out of line with current growth realities . . . Pierce County will be unable to achieve the population targets contained . . . without taking drastic and unrealistic actions such as downsizing large portions of the existing unincorporated urban area and implementing widespread development moratorium. This result is driven primarily by the significant growth that has occurred in Pierce County in the past decade and the large number of vested and approved projects in unincorporated Pierce County.'ꀝ

In sum, it'ꀙs time everyone recognized some inconvenient truths. First, that the future must be prepared for on the basis that a lot of regional growth will happen in areas where Vision 2040 says it'ꀙs not supposed to go. And, second, to approximate even some of the worthy and intended goals of growth management, bold steps must be taken to stop some of the very unhelpful things that otherwise will continue to go on. We can'ꀙt continue as we are, both ignoring what'ꀙs happening all around us and mostly bringing only wishful thinking to reversing adverse trends. They won'ꀙt correct themselves.

And what's the tell-me-straight news from Puget Sound? We know enough to stand up for action now.

Puget Sound and its problems have been studied time and again. Each new round repeats (or freshly re-discovers) basic truths about what is stressing nature'ꀙs Sound. Each new round yields a refinement or a new vantage point and then renews academic and bureaucratic thirst for yet more studies and refinements. These days, for example, there is much talk about the need for modeling the Puget Sound food web. Too few note the irony of the astonishingly large, vibrant, and robust Puget Sound food web of another kind — human beings seemingly intent on diligently and earnestly munching and crunching on this topic and one another until the end of time.

Study is fine, and it yields future improvements in our actions. But it is no substitute for action to start now. Many facts stare us in the face, already established and fully adequate to serve as the basis for actions that are incontestably on the priority list. The to-do list of specific things to be done in specific places to achieve specific results needs to be put on the wall.

Here's an obvious one to put high on that to-do list: nitrogen removal at the Chambers Creek Sewage Treatment Plant. That needed action distinctly merges the news about growth with the news about Puget Sound and precisely hits the Action Agenda'ꀙs top concern for ending pollution inputs. It arises from putting together current and future growth realities for Pierce County with the unquestioned threat low-dissolved oxygen levels bring to the intricate passages and shallow inlets and bays south of the Narrows at Tacoma — the South Sound.

Scientists at the state Department of Ecology recently issued a data report on the sources of nitrogen entering the waters of South Sound, a key factor in the dissolved oxygen problem. Nitrogen is generally not good news for water quality, especially in shallow waters with limited circulation. Nitrogen entering and lingering in those sorts of waters, contributes (in effect just as nitrogen in lawn fertilizer helps grass grow on the lawn) to unnaturally thick and abundant blooms of marine algae, especially in late summer. The algae bloom each runs its short course and naturally dies off. Then the real trouble begins. The process of dead algae'ꀙs organic decomposition draws down the store of oxygen dissolved in the water. Oxygen levels plummet, especially in shallow waters with little circulation, like many sensitive areas of South Sound.

This is bad, sometimes fatal, for things that live on oxygen in the water, just as we live on oxygen in the atmosphere. Fish may literally suffocate and then float dead to the water'ꀙs surface. Also suffering are shellfish and the microscopic marine organisms in the water and the bottom mud that support the entire web of the marine food chain.

Ecology sampled the inputs of dissolved inorganic nitrogen, the key parameter, entering South Sound in 2007 in the especially critical late summer month of September. Ecology found that 1,100 pounds a day of dissolved inorganic nitrogen was entering South Sound just south of the Narrows in treated wastewater (what comes out of a sewage treatment plant after the plant has done its work on what people have shipped in with every flush of their toilets) from the Chambers Creek Sewage Treatment Plant in University Place.

The Chambers Creek plant contributed 90 percent of the total of dissolved inorganic nitrogen from all the South Sound sewage treatment plants together, and 80 percent of the total nitrogen input taking into account the rivers, too. By contrast, the Nisqually River and the Deschutes River, South Sound'ꀙs largest, were responsible in each instance for less than 80 pound of dissolved inorganic nitrogen a day.

The Chambers Creek Treatment Plant serves about 160,000 people who live in parts of Pierce County that include some slowly growing cities (Lakewood, University Place, DuPont, and Steilacoom). It also serves some of the fast-growing unincorporated areas of Pierce County (Parkland, Spanaway, Graham, South Hill, and Frederickson) where sewers are regularly being extended to serve the ceaseless pressure of new population.

Chambers Creek is a well-operated sewage plant within the constraints of its installed technology. It consistently meets the discharge limits set in its Clean Water Act permit. Not long ago it commendably upgraded its disinfection technology to end reliance on chlorine. However, its current permit includes no limit on discharge of nitrogen although it probably will in the future, as permits require today at innumerable other treatment plants across the country.

Proven methods exist to do what Chambers Creek now does not — remove most nitrogen from wastewater. Nitrogen removal could be installed, as it was, for example, in 1994 at the sewage treatment plant serving Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater. That plant discharges to shallow Budd Inlet. The volume of flow at that plant is roughly two-thirds of the flow at Chambers Creek. While Chambers Creek in September 2007 was discharging 1,100 pounds of nitrogen a day into South Puget Sound, the Olympia plant with nitrogen-removal technology in place was discharging just 30 pounds.

Chambers Creek is planning a facility expansion by 2014. It has space at the plant site for nitrogen-removal facilities. To act, however, it probably will wait until someone, Ecology, to be specific, orders that step in a periodic renewal of its permit. County officials should not wait to get a program under way. (Of course, nothing is simple, and there are some emerging carbon footprint questions in the nitrogen removal process that will need to be addressed.)

State or federal funding would be helpful. Indeed, had a plan for Chambers Creek now been 'ꀜshovel ready,'ꀝ it might have been on a stimulus project list However, under the ordinary rules federal or state financial assistance, Chambers Creek is at an ironic disadvantage, in comparison to other localities'ꀙ needs, because Chambers Creek customers'ꀙ monthly sewer utility bills are dramatically lower than for comparable communities across the entire state. That suggests, of course, that the people of Pierce County, old residents or new, who flush every day to the plant and thence to the Sound, could surely bear the burden of improving the plant'ꀙs performance.

And as Ecology completes more analysis, King County should be paying heed. Its big sewage treatment plants in Seattle and Renton discharge to deeper, better circulating areas of the Sound than Chambers Creek, but they are bigger nitrogen producers by far. Studies may show that they may themselves be influencing algae blooms in waters up and down the Sound.

Here's another project that belongs on that to-do list. There's a proposal in Snohomish County that would bring thousands of new people to live some day soon in a "Fully Developed Community" at Lake Roesiger in the eastern part of the county.

In rural Snohomish County east of Route 9 and between Monroe and Granite Falls, farms and wood lots still support families, country roads have two lanes and no shoulders, and wild salmon still spawn in Woods Creek and the Pilchuck River just as insects, birds and amphibians still thrive in their own interwoven native habitats. Granted, commercial and residential sprawl has clearly established its range in Monroe. Monroe today has 4,500 homes. Many parts of the nearby rural areas are already dotted with small subdivisions where manicured lawns and driveways with three-car garages line paved cul-de-sacs. Such are the favored conditions for new residents that growth statistics show are persistently settling into east Snohomish County.

But, one more car and one more commuter at a time, traffic headaches grow. Old and new local residents alike send their officials to Olympia to plead for road-widening money from other people'ꀙs gas taxes. This is a picture of transportation utterly at odds with state goals to lessen the vehicle miles run up by commuters and shoppers, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging shorter trip distances, and mesh land uses with transportation systems so that transit in some form could someday conveniently attract a greater share of travel needs.

By parallel process, change is also taking apart the natural resources of rural land, water, and wetlands. Over-development shrinks and fragments natural habitat and disrupts the ways that water flows over and in the ground and along stream banks and streambeds. All the natural systems, not just the spawning salmon, face impoverished conditions for survival. Since nature in Puget Sound depends totally on what is left in the region of natural areas like these in Snohomish County, here is a major spot where the future of Puget Sound is being written.

Red alert, therefore, is the right response when a politically connected, contribution-wielding, and impatient developer wants to put 6,000 new homes (more than in Monroe) on 3,000 acres in rural Snohomish County, where new commuters will have to drive miles in the country even before they will add to the crush on this area'ꀙs already choked state highways. It's smack in the middle of the kind of remaining rural country that must be used more wisely than this if Puget Sound is to survive.

The development would be called Falcon Ridge. It would overlook Lake Roesiger almost in the shadow of Mount Pilchuck and forever transform the watershed of Woods Creek that meanders though the floodplain 13 miles downstream into the Skykomish River at Monroe. Several salmon species, especially coho, spawn in Woods Creek today. With Falcon Ridge, the widened roads to Monroe and Granite Falls will encourage housing and strip malls to metastasize along their entire lengths and push the next round of housing even further into the Cascade foothills north of Sultan. The threat to habitat is bad enough in the timberland to be converted at Lake Roesiger itself. That'ꀙs just the beginning.

The only defense of Falcon Ridge is a wiggle-space in law that once contemplated that rural areas be embellished with urban density communities. The Growth Management Act in 1991 thus chartered an oxymoron called a Fully Contained Community, envisioning that thousands of people at a swoop could be settled in rural enclaves sublimely without impact on their rural surroundings. Maybe such a community would be designed to set aside acreage for permanent forest or open space to trick nature into thinking the old neighborhood values were still respected.

We are far wiser today about how growth and development will and won'ꀙt work. In fact, a bill that has passed the House in Olympia and awaits Senate action would rule out fully contained communities in agricultural or forest lands of long-term significance and require such projects more fully to bear their own infrastructure improvement costs. Falcon Ridge lobbyists are working against the bill'ꀙs enactment. (Calls to the Falcon Ridge developer and several of his consultants for comment on this article were not returned.)

In any event, if there are opportunities for expanding populations in rural areas, the wrong location — far from transportation infrastructure and carved into prime natural habitat, Falcon Ridge, in other words — should never today qualify as the place for that approach. Better locations for growth in lots of preferable settings with many different choices of housing and community styles can be found by committed developers, citizens, and officials. And such locations must be found, if growth in the end is not to destroy our region.

Meanwhile, vigilant, modern, local officials should do everything they can to make sure that irreplaceable rural areas aren'ꀙt outrageously exploited by developers with shortsighted visions of big profits at the expense of our best natural lands and the future of Puget Sound.

Many of the decisions that either value or de-value our future and our region are made not in Olympia, but in the more sheltered, less visible venues where local and county officials must judge the many singular actions that will sum up to our success or our failure at managing growth. Their work in tedious hearings and public meetings, badgered by developers'ꀙ attorneys and consultants, gets too little attention, too little light, and too little fresh air. Their job as public officials is to say yes to some things, and no to others. There are occasions when saying no is a critical part of their public service responsibilities.

Falcon Ridge is a blueprint for landscape and habitat desecration on a large enough scale to be an important battle in the fight for Puget Sound. Permits have not yet been granted for Falcon Ridge. No one'ꀙs rights to profit have vested. There are means in Snohomish County'ꀙs environmental protection tool kit and within the rules of the Growth Management Act to say no. Or at least to discourage the project by fair procedures and sane requirements so that the economic equation for Falcon Ridge goes negative.

If you are an elected official, you speak with forked tongue if you claim both to be for Falcon Ridge and for good growth management and a healthy Puget Sound. It'ꀙs that simple. And that lesson applies to a myriad of local and county officials and decisions across the region, not just to one stark example in Snohomish County.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Doug MacDonald

Douglas MacDonald

Doug MacDonald is a pedestrian activist who once served as the Secretary of Transportation for Washington state.