Puget Sound Partnership reaches a crossroads

Can the state cleanup effort deliver on Gov. Gregoire's demands for measures of real progress? Or, more basically, can the Partnership convince the public that there is a real need for a cleanup?

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Puget Sound

Can the state cleanup effort deliver on Gov. Gregoire's demands for measures of real progress? Or, more basically, can the Partnership convince the public that there is a real need for a cleanup?

"What a perfect time to take stock" of what Puget Sound needs and how we can provide it, says Kathy Fletcher, founder and executive director of People for Puget Sound who, will retire next year from the advocacy group. Fletcher, who has headed that group since 1990 and has been been the most recognizable advocate of reviving Puget Sound since the mid-1980s, looks at the economic slowdown, the almost dead halt to development, the changing of the guard at the state-established Puget Sound Partnership, and sees opporunity — if we have the will to sieze it.

We certainly seem to have reached a crossroads. Fletcher herself, who chaired the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority in the 1980s and has been the only executive director of the group she founded, is leaving after 20 years. And Fletcher isn't the only person making a change. David Dicks, the first and only executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, has left the organizatioin for a job at the University of Washington. Gov. Chris Gregoire, who launched the current save-the-Sound crusade and is entering what may be her last two years in office, has just announced a major reorganization of natural resource agencies that will leave the Partnership intact as the only agency responsible for Puget Sound.

Created in 2007 to replace the old interim group of the same name, which replaced the Puget Sound Action Team (which replaced the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority), the Partnership was stung last spring by a series of revelations about minor financial sins, and suggestions of both cronyism and misuse of power. The Washington State Auditor's Office found that the "Puget Sound Partnership circumvented state contracting laws, exceeded its purchasing authority and made unallowable purchases with public funds.” The agency had, circumvented competitive bidding requirements — and 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. In August, a series of KUOW radio reports by John Ryan repeated the Auditor's findings, also reporting that Dicks had misused a government car and that the Partnership had fired a whistleblower.

Most of the alleged sins seemed distinctly minor, but credibility had become an issue. Referring to the KUOW reports, the Tacoma News Tribune suggested that “Puget Sound is in serious need ... of a cleanup agency that the public trusts." "On that score," the paper said, "the Puget Sound Partnership is failing. Its management practices invite skepticism and undermine its own mission to secure money for the Sound's rescue."

The skepticism evidently extended to Gregoire. At an October hearing on accountability for state resource agencies, Dicks started giving some background about the Partnership when the governor broke in. “These slides are too general for me,” she said. “I knew the story. I want data. I want to be able to see that we are accomplishing what we set out to do. ... I need to be able to show to the legislature, candidly, that we are doing our job.”

The governor sounded like a woman whose patience was being tried. "We have to have measures, goals," she said, "and we don't have that." She explained that in addition to targets and progress reports about the health of Puget Sound, "we have to have (them) for the Puget Sound Partnership itself."

The governor added, "The next time we come here, I've got to be able to ... hold the Puget Sound Partnership accountable. ... Where's the part where the Puget Sound Partnership can say ... 'Here's our job, and here's how we're doing our job?' "

What Gregoire didn't say was that the next time, she expected to be hearing it from someone other than Dicks. Within a month, rumor had it that — at the governor's behind-the-scenes insistence — Dicks was on his way out, and on November 10, the Partnership announced that he would take a position at the new University of Washington College of the Environment. On December 1, deputy director Gerry O'Keefe (who had arrived in March) took over as acting executive director. (There have been rumors about the next permanent executive director, but no hint yet of anything official.)

"In the near term, the Partnership has to become more visible," says Bill Ruckelshaus, former chair and still a member of the Partnership's leadership council. "It has to be known as the place where people go to get the truth about Puget Sound."

Does that mean new leadership that can raise the organization's profile, rather than merely make the trains run on time? “We need to have both,” says Northwest Straits Commission director Ginny Broadhurst, “and it doesn't have to be in one person.” Whoever runs the organization, “they really need to provide the backbone for doing the right thing,” says Fletcher of People for Puget Sound.

The Partnership still must prove that it knows how to look in the mirror. How can it deal with Gregoire's criticism? "You've got to talk with people," says acting Executive Director O'Keefe. "We just need to ask people, 'What are your expectations? What will it look like when we're meeting your expectations?'" O'Keefe says that he is "very confident" of meeting the governor's standards.

Clearly, the Partnership has disappointed a lot of people who had hoped for a higher profile and more visible progress. Whether or not anyone could have moved the state legislature and bureaucracy further in the past three years' economic and political environment is unclear. But obviously, it shouldn't have taken the Partnership three years to come up with a list of 20 “dashboard indicators” by which to gauge progress. But the dashboard indicators were unveiled last summer. Next, “we need to set targets,” O'Keefe says. The organization is still working on numerical targets that give the dashboard indicators some specificity. Using a medical analogy, O'Keefe says the dashboard indicators “are meant to be sort of the equivalents of pulse, blood pressure, temperature. . . . The next step will be to define what 'healthy' looks like.”

O'Keefe explains that although one dashboard indicator is the spawning biomass of Pacific herring, no one knows what that herring biomass would be in a healthy Sound. How many herring should we have? How many herring do we have now?

“We're building something,” O'Keefe says, and suggests that the appropriate questions are pretty well the same ones you'd ask about a construction project; you just have to “ask yourself, are you on track to deliver a completed product on time?”

At this point, no one knows whether we're on track or not. Ruckelshaus says the group has “two almost entirely different needs.” In the long term, he says, the organization “has to put in place a series of systems” to tell us how we're doing. “The indicators are good enough to get us going,” he says, but “we need to monitor those indicators” and “we don't have a monitoring system in place yet.”

Legislators have always been reluctant to spend money on monitoring. There are, of course, plenty of scientists out there generating lots of data all the time. But it's not coordinated to provide the kind of focused information the Partnership needs, Ruckelshaus explains. Partly, he says, that stems from jealousies and conflicts over professional turf. And partly, it stems from piecemeal federal requirements that isolate research projects in separate silos.

This problem is not unique to the Partnership. Ruckelshaus, who chairs the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council, says salmon restoration has suffered from a similar lack of monitoring. He says he's convinced that "we have done a lot of good — but we don't have the monitoring systems in place to prove it."

Monitoring certainly won't get any big new cash infusion from the state. Washington faces a Soundful of red ink, and will clearly have to cut funding for environmental programs. A proposed tax on petroleum and other hazardous materials to finance major stormwater projects died in the last legislature, and although environmentalists will bring some version of it back this year, don't hold your breath. The dream of a dedicated funding source for Puget Sound programs — e.g., a 12-county taxing district rather like the four-county district that runs Sound Transit — is no closer to reality than it was back in 2007.

From the start, people at the Partnership have said that they can't expect to get public support for a Sound-wide taxing district until the public realizes that the Sound needs saving. It's hard to believe that people don't realize there's a problem, but that's exactly what the polls have shown. How does the Partnership get the public to understand? “In the kind of media world that we're in,” O'Keefe suggests, you can succeed “if you're relentless . . . and you have a crisp, clear message.”

But how should one couch that message? While there's plenty of talk about water quality, the elephant in the room remains land use, over which the Partnership has no control. State population grew 14 percent in the past 10 years. The Puget Sound Regional Council forecasts another 1.7 million people moving into or growing up in the central Puget Sound area by 2040. The Cascade Land Conservancy has pointed out that while most population growth is taking place in urban boundaries, it also leaks into areas that should stay undeveloped. Over the next decade, that won't make much difference. Over the next century, it will leave the basin just about entirely paved over, from the mountains to the beach. Washington already has stronger growth management laws than just about any place but Oregon — and beyond a certain point, more regulation will just bring out the populace with torches and pitchforks — but that's clearly not enough. “The scary thing” about the population forecasts, says John Lombard, author of Saving Puget Sound, is the fact that “we're not even meeting the existing policies” for controlling growth.

And Lombard sees a logical corollary to the growth projections. “If you're going to have millions of people moving to this region,” he says, the region better go for big projects that save or restore lots of habitat all at once. “If you try to mitigate those impacts with little stuff here and there,” he says, “it ain't gonna happen.”

In other words, swing for the fences, go for the home runs, instead of grinding out a series of singles. But other people see a need to do both. "We have to treat (the entire Salish Sea, which includes the Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Georgia Strait) as a whole," says Joe Gaydos, regional director of the SeaDoc Society, noting that "half the ecosystem is up in Canada" and most of the fresh water in the system comes from Canada's Fraser River. But, he says, "there are also things that happen locally, and that's what resonates with people." He talks about the three steps of "place-based conservation": know, connect, protect. "Take away the 'know,' " he says, and the issue falls low on most people's lists. The trick is engaging people in stuff they can see without totally ignoring the big picture. "It's a little bit of a dance," Gaydos says.

But how do you help most of the population forge local connections with the Sound if more and more people live farther and farther from the water? That's a challenge, Gaydos says. "It's critical to maintain public access."

Broadhurst of the Northwest Straits Commission, which focuses on the inland sea around seven counties in the northwest corner of the state,  says she doesn't see the Sound being restored entirely through the labor of volunteers, but she talks about the commitment shown by hundreds of citizens who clean up beaches and do other things to improve the Sound. She suggests that cleaning up the beaches may work kind of like removing graffiti and fixing broken windows in urban areas to deter crime. It also gets people engaged with the process and problems; you're bascially building a constituency.

Ruckelshaus says that the Partnership, too, must "generate and keep enthusiasm at the local level." He says that "the trick is not to make (local activists) think you're telling them what to do." The question is "how do you keep that entushiasm" — and how do you make the Partnership a catalyst for generating it, something he says the organization can be but hasn't yet become.

But everyone welcomes the big projects of more than local significance. The recent decision to save the Glacier property on Maury Island shore as a King County park rather than let industry develop it into a huge gravel mine is the latest, but not the only, visible success. Federal stimulus money has put the Elwha dam removal process back on schedule. In September, heavy equipment started digging a channel through lake sediment for the long-dammed Elwha River. Next year, actual deconstruction of the dams will start.

Last year, with the help of more federal cash, the final dike was breached, letting 762 acres in the Nisqually Delta return to tidal marsh.

None of these success stories owes much to the Partnership. Nisqually Delta restoration planning began in 1996. Congress voted to remove the Elwha dams back in 1992. But the Partnership has helped attract money for the Sound. That's one of the reasons why Gaydos says "even with the state cuts, I'm still excited about what's going on." Gaydos is no Polyanna, though. "Sometimes," he says, "I feel like Alice in Wonderland and the Red Queen: We have to keep running just to stay in place."

These headline-grabbbing success stories can help educate the public and motivate volunteers. Ruckelshaus argues that "you have to use the Nisqually" to help rally the troops in watersheds all around the Sound.

Gaydos suggests we should leverage the Elwha dam removal process into a major teaching moment. It will make national and international news; surely, it can be a hook for public education. The Elwha dam removal "should be highlighted." Ruckleshaus agrees. It shows that we can restore places that were damaged a century ago, he says, and we should use it as an example "so that other people don't despair."

There's not much point in despairing about the Partnersip, either. It's OK to criticize the organization, Lombard says, but when it comes to focusing attention on problems in the whole Puget Sound Basin, the Partnership and the Cascade Land Conservancy are the only games in town. We'd better wish them well.


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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.