Fixing the group that's supposed to fix Puget Sound

The Puget Sound Partnership is broken, but the Sound really needs better eco-monitoring and new land-use patterns. And that will require the hardest change of all: cultural change.
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Puget Sound

The Puget Sound Partnership is broken, but the Sound really needs better eco-monitoring and new land-use patterns. And that will require the hardest change of all: cultural change.

I wade out over the barnacled rocks, feet protected by the thick soles of my Tevas, push through leaves and seaweed floating on a high tide, adjust my goggles, and swim out into the cold salt water of Puget Sound. I do this often in the summer. And when I do, I sometimes reflect on Gov. Chris Gregoire standing by the shore in 2007, signing legislation that created the Puget Sound Partnership, and setting the goal of a Sound that was 'ꀜfishable, swimmable and diggable'ꀝ by 2020.

That goal was never more than a sound — or, if you prefer, a Sound — bite. Some people swim in the Sound every summer. On my way to the beach, I passed three people fishing from a pier. Whenever the salmon are running, state ferries must blow their horns and steer around the small craft of fishermen more intent on their quarry than their personal safety.

That said, yes the Sound could use some saving. And now it seems that the Puget Sound Partnership could use a little salvation of its own.

The Partnership has been stung by a series of revelations about minor — inexcusable, but still minor — financial sins, and suggestions of both cronyism and misuse of power. This spring, the Washington State Auditor's Office found that 'ꀜ[t]he Puget Sound Partnership circumvented state contracting laws, exceeded its purchasing authority and made unallowable purchases with public funds.'ꀝ The agency had, among other things, circumvented competitive bidding requirements — as well as a requirement to use the Attorney General's office — to hire an outside law firm, and had bought Apple computer products at retail even though they cost two-thirds more than low-end PCs and weren't compatible with state information systems.

One might consider this old news, but in a recent series of reports by John Ryan, KUOW has repeated some of the Auditor's findings. In addition, Ryan has reported that Partnership executive director David Dicks may have misused a government car and that the Partnership fired a whistleblower. Ryan's series also has questioned the role of Dicks' father, Congressman Norm Dicks.

Alluding to the KUOW reports, the Tacoma News Tribune has suggested that 'ꀜPuget Sound is in serious need . . . of a cleanup agency that the public trusts. . . . On that score'ꀝ the paper says, 'ꀜthe Puget Sound Partnership is failing. Its management practices invite skepticism and undermine its own mission to secure money for the Sound'ꀙs rescue.'ꀝ

The Godfather of the Puget Sound restoration effort, former EPA head Bill Ruckelshaus, may have stepped down as chairman of the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council just in time.

Or maybe not quite in time. Ruckelshaus, who had been chair from the start and had co-chaired an earlier ad hoc group, also called the Partnership, that came up with the plan for this one, was replaced at the end of July by longtime vice-chair Martha Kongsgaard. He isn't leaving the group — which is a good thing, because no one else associated with the effort carries anything close to his stature.

Clearly, management of the Partnership has been both sloppy and cavalier in its use of tax dollars. If the allegations about the Partnership are true, one hopes some faces have turned red and perhaps some butts will be kicked.

That said, it's a sideshow. While reporting that the outside law firm had received $51,498, and implying — if you do the math — that the agency spent about $31,000 more than it should have by buying MacIntosh computer products, rather than Dell or Hewlett-Packard PCs, the Auditor's Office noted that 'ꀜ[f]or 2007-2009, the Partnership had an operating budget of $16,147,000.'ꀝ

And that is merely the tip of the iceberg. The state spends an estimated $250 million a year for Puget Sound protection and restoration, and Congressman Norm Dicks has gotten Congress to appropriate $50 million a year for Puget Sound. 'ꀜThe region probably spends more than $1 billion each year to meet stormwater requirements," writes John Lombard in his 2006 book Saving Puget Sound. And no one even pretends that we have stormwater under control.

All those big numbers pale beside the additional $8 billion projected three years ago as the total cost of restoring the Sound — much less the $20 billion that some people think is a more realistic sum. The Partnership is supposed to figure out how all or much of that money should be spent. What are we getting for the dollars we're spending now? What would we get if we upped the ante? Is the Sound getting better or worse?

No one knows. And, Ruckelshaus says, no one has any way to know.

At this point, 'ꀜWe don't [even] know whether we're recovering more habitat than we're losing,'ꀝ Ruckelshaus says. We don't know how we're doing unless we look. And we don't do a lot of looking. To know where we are and where we're heading, we'll have to do a lot more monitoring.

In his letter of resignation to Gregoire, Ruckelshaus wrote that the state should 'ꀜ[d]evelop a Sound-wide monitoring system that will help us track our progress against the indicators and other measures of progress necessary to recover the health of the Sound." It should also 'ꀜ[i]ncorporate an adaptive management system into our implementation efforts that will force rigorous oversight of our approved cleanup steps and change them if they are not working.'ꀝ

Unfortunately, monitoring takes time and manpower; therefore, it costs plenty — and it's terminally unsexy. Legislators don't like to pay for it. And they don't. 'ꀜIt's very hard to get monitoring money even in the best of times,'ꀝ Ruckelshaus says. And yet, 'ꀜLegislators will [ask], 'Are we making any progress?' 'ꀝ

Progress toward what?

Until the end of July, the Partnership had no concrete way to answer that. Are we getting there? Where is 'ꀜthere?'ꀝ We already know about 'ꀜswimmable.'ꀝ

'ꀜScientists just have a terrible time'ꀝ settling on a limited number of ojectives, Ruckelshaus says. He recalls that the agency's draft agenda contained something like 340 separate indicators. But having that many is pretty well the same as having none, so Ruckelshaus and his colleagues sent the staff back to the drawing board. Now, the Leadership Council has approved 20 'ꀜdashboard indicators'ꀝ against which it can measure progress.

These indicators are pretty standard stuff. They include marine water quality, wild chinook salmon counts, and Southern resident killer whale population trends. Did it really take three years to come up with them? Well, yes. Whether or not it should have taken so long is now beside the point. The question is where we go from here.

'ꀜThe Partnership can do a better job,'ꀝ Ruckelshaus says, "and I think [it] will.'ꀝ Actually, now that it has come up with the ecosystem indicators, he thinks it has already started doing somewhat better.

But he doesn't pretend that all is well or even adequate.

Despite the large sums already spent on Puget Sound, 'ꀜWe're going to need significantly more money,'ꀝ Ruckelshaus says. 'ꀜIdeally, you'd have a dedicated funding source'ꀝ — a mechanism that will generate money exclusively for the Sound, year after year. Right before the 2009 legislative session, the Partnership and its allies floated the idea of a 12-county district within which people could vote to tax themselves for programs that would improve the health of the Sound. The district's governing structure would be similar to Sound Transit's.

Whatever the virtues or failings of that idea, there wasn't enough time to sell it to legislators before the session started — and it may not have been saleable, anyway: The details remained unclear, polls showed only 25 percent of potential voters realized there was a problem, and the economy had already started circling the drain.

Not much has changed. Ruckelshaus wrote in his letter to Gregoire that the Parntership needed 'ꀜa funding strategy that will match the monetary needs of Puget Sound restoration to the economic conditions and the public'ꀙs willingness to fund our collective efforts for a prosperous and healthy Puget Sound.'ꀝ He says the taxing district idea is still on the shelf, and it could be pulled out at any time — but until the economy recovers, there's no point in even trying.

(A coalition of environmental groups and labor unions tried this year to lobby through a new $1.50-per-barrel tax on hazardous substances, mostly petroleum products. The tax would have raised some $100 billion a year for water quality projects to benefit Puget Sound and other water bodies, including the Spokane and Columbia rivers. The money would have been used for capital projects and retrofits to deal somehow with the petroleum content of stormwater, and with those or other projects that had the highest priority based on ecological or water-quality benefits. City and county governments, which face a future of huge stormwater expenditures and limited budgets, supported the bill. The petroleum industry opposed it. The bill did not survive the special session.)

Certainly, no one seems to be trying very hard. A lot of people have grumbled about the Partnership's lack of visible achievement and, for that matter, visibility. Perhaps they should start by asking what has happened to Gregoire. The Governor has a lot on her plate, but she has been pretty well invisible on this issue for years. So has the legislature. Sure, it's unreasonable to expect a spate of money for Puget Sound when people are wondering how to pay for cops and schools, but why should any more-or-less-objective observer believe that anybody really cares — expressions of noble sentiment aside?

Ruckelshaus certainly isn't naïve. He's familiar with the faltering efforts to restore Chesapeake Bay and other water bodies, as well as the Sound. He knows that just cleaning up the water that flows from industrial, municipal, and other discharge pipes won't do it. Neither will replacing all those waterfront septic tanks with sewers. It's relatively easy to win support — albeit harder to win money — for pouring concrete and laying pipe. Those things produce something tangible; they conform to most people's ideas about water quality; they generate jobs — and they don't force anyone to change his way of life.

But more concrete and big pipes aren't all the Sound needs. James Karr, a retired University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences, has suggested that rhetoric about "cleaning up" the Sound encourages people to ignore the other significant factors and, more importantly, interrelationships. Ruckelshaus has said all along that land use will be the key issue. That may be a hard sell. Yes, Gregoire conceded, right after she signed the law that created the Partnership, "but think of how hard a sell it was a decade ago."

Times have changed, but not all that much. Despite the labyrinth of law and regulation that confronts anyone trying to build a house in western Washington, we're not getting the job done.

Ruckelshaus points to the Nisqually as an example of a place in which all the local interests have come together to save and restore habitat. He suggests that agreements with farmers, tribes, and others along the Nooksack and other rivers may be close.

Ruckelshaus has been known — and criticized — for a big-tent approach to environmental issues: Get everyone at the table, and work for a decision that all can support. Can you do what the Sound needs if you try to bring everyone on board? Conversely, can you do it if you don't? 'ꀜThey're both valid questions,'ꀝ Ruckelshaus laughs.

'ꀜThe big problem remains land use,'ꀝ he says. 'ꀜI don't think you can [make people change their patterns of land use] just by ordering them to do it.'ꀝ We already have plenty of laws and regulations, but 'ꀜit just isn't happening.'ꀝ There's not much point in just doing more of the same. 'ꀜIf it doesn't work,'ꀝ he says, 'ꀜyou have to try something else.'ꀝ

He talks about reading a classic biography of Theodore Roosevelt. TR believed that national parks wouldn't work unless the people who lived around them thought the existence of the parks was in their own best interests. 'ꀜI think the same principle is true here,'ꀝ Ruckelshaus says. You may make some short-term progress without getting the neighbors on your side, but 'ꀜyour program is not very sustainable . . . unless they think it's a good idea.'ꀝ

He has said that the region requires nothing less than a cultural change. That's a tall order. What are the odds that it will happen by 2020? 'ꀜ2020 may not be realistic,'ꀝ Ruckelshaus says. 'ꀜWhether it ever was or not, who knows?'ꀝ Realistic or not, it may be 'ꀜa useful deadline to galvanize action.'ꀝ But any 'ꀜdeadline can be misleading,'ꀝ he says. 'ꀜYou're never finished.'ꀝ


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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.