After 5 years, Gregoire's Puget Sound progress is uncertain

The governor launched an effort to restore the Sound to good health by 2020. But money, goals, and data remain elusive.
Crosscut archive image.

Puget Sound

The governor launched an effort to restore the Sound to good health by 2020. But money, goals, and data remain elusive.

The great crusade to restore Puget Sound is five years old. What crusade? People who've moved here since that start of the financial crisis may not recall that on May 7, 2007, Gov. Chris Gregoire stood on the shore of Puget Sound, signed the law that created the Puget Sound Partnership, and launched a campaign to restore the Sound by 2020.

The time laid out for the cleanup is more than one-third up. By now, some political insiders have grown to think badly of the Puget Sound Partnership, but most people don't think of it at all. The Sound currently inspires little or no visible leadership. It benefits from no dedicated source of money. Like many other worthy projects, Puget Sound restoration "has really suffered from this economic downturn," says the first chair of the Partnership's leadership council, Bill Ruckelshaus. What has happened to the crusade? And where do we go from here?

Neither the goals nor the timetable ever made much literal sense. Gregoire called for a Sound that was "swimmable, diggable, fishable" by the end of this decade. People swim, fish, and dig clams in it every summer now, of course. They have never stopped doing so. "Swimmable, diggable, fishable" makes a nice sound bite — and certainly a level below which one wouldn't want the health of the Sound to sink — but it would hardly constitute recovery.

And while 2020 is a nice round number, there was never a chance that whoever occupied the governor's mansion at the end of this decade would be able to announce "mission accomplished." Asked if the glass is even half full, Ruckelshaus says "I don't think it's going to be for 20 years."

And yet . . . if former President George W. Bush leaves any lasting legacy, one of the things he showed the nation and the world is that it's never too soon to announce "mission accomplished." The Sound will be clean enough when we say it's clean enough. The water will look good in any case. We can set the bar as high or low as we like.

To Gregoire's credit, she has set the bar pretty high. "We look out right now and [the Sound] looks absolutely gorgeous," she said when she signed that legislation five years ago, "and that, my friends, is what too many of our citizens see, is how gorgeous it looks from the surface." Beneath that glittering surface, "in some parts it is dying and in many places it's sick."

And now? That depends in part on your vantage point. Jay Manning, director of the Department of Ecology from 2005 to 2009 and Gregoire's chief of staff for two years after that, suggests that on the inside, state government is a lot more focused on Puget Sound than it was five years ago. "There has been a ramp-up in attention," says Manning, who now works for the Cascadia Law Group, although "whether that has had time to make any kind of difference I would frankly be skeptical." How it all looks from the outside he's not sure. "In my little world, it's still front and center," he says. But it was "never clear to me out there in the greater world that it ever got onto the radar screen."

In the insiders' world, he says, there was plenty of discussion about whether or not 2020 was realistic, but he personally figures that setting an aggressive goal was important. The job "will never be done," Manning says, much less done at the end of the decade. He suggests that "by 2020, the goal should be that we do no harm to the relatively healthy areas . . . and have made some progress in the really hammered ones."

The past few years have seen some dramatic changes — which owe little to state efforts or commitment: One Elwha River dam is down and the second is in the process of coming down. Dismantling of the Elwha dams is billed as the largest dam removal in American history. The lower dam had stood there since it was built on spec, illegally walling out anadromous fish, nearly a century ago. For the first time since 1914, salmon will have access to the unspoiled headwaters of the Elwha, which drains 20 percent of Olympic National Park.

Levees that had kept salt water from the Nisqually delta for even longer, since the late 19th century, have been demolished, letting salt water pour back into 762 acres. This may be the largest estuary restoration project in the Northwest. It, too, was accomplished with outside money, including federal salmon restoration funds, and contributions by Ducks Unlimited and the Nisqually tribe.

The Glacier gravel pit site on the shore of Maury Island has been acquired as a park, rather than developed into a big gravel mine. The legislature had refused to block the Glacier development, but the state did kick in money. King County used conservation futures tax dollars, too. But the state was hardly aggressive about preserving the site. Citizen activists, the courts, and Forterra, which brokered the sale, deserved most of the credit.

Manning points out that in some other ways, things are a lot better than they used to be. "There was just some terrible stuff" going on as recently as the 1980s, he recalls, when for example, one industrial site was leaching 50 to 60 pounds of arsenic a day into the Sound. He looks at the condo development rising beside Commencement Bay at the old Tacoma smelter site as an example of how far we've come. Other old industrial sites are being redeveloped all around the Sound, albeit with varying degrees of success. (Seattle's early-1970s development of a polluted old industrial site beside Lake Union into Gasworks Park may have started the process.)

But in general, Manning doesn't claim to know how we're we doing. Arguably, no one really knows. No one is monitoring enough to know whether or not what we're doing actually works. "If we haven't been monitoring," Ruckelshaus says, "we're just guessing." He says "you can point to individual projects . . but overall, we just don't have a comprehensive monitoring system." This is not a new situation. Monitoring is never sexy. Even in good times, "it's the hardest money to get out of the Legislature."

Of course, not all problems can be solved by shutting down an old industrial plant or tearing down a dam. Some people have started to acknowledge the complexity of what's going on in Puget Sound: That dead zone in Hood Canal? Turns out leaky septic systems aren't primarily to blame; as some scientists have known all along, the main culprit is a slug of cold, dense, oxygen-poor water from the deep ocean that tends to sit on the bottom. Not that septic effluent (or lawn fertilizer or pet waste) does the oxygen content of Hood Canal any good. But the ocean water contributes perhaps two-thirds of the problem.

We have also recognized that the failure of oyster spawn is related to acification caused by the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There's no easy fix for that one, either — although gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee argues that the local impact of acidification helps make a case for local development of carbon-free energy technologies and products.

Evidently, most people still don't realize the Sound needs saving. The Partnership's surveys have never showed much public appreciation of the Sound's problems. And the agency's leaders have always been reluctant to push expensive solutions for problems that haven't reached public consciousness. Beyond that — and some critics suggest that the surveys have asked the wrong questions — most people who do acknowledge a problem still tend to speak in terms of "cleaning up" the Sound. Fix leaky septic systems. Clean up industrial discharges. Lay pipe to carry stormwater. But the underlying threat remains the existing pattern of land use. And, of course, no one has taken significant steps toward raising enough money to do what should be done.

The 2007 law signed with such fanfare appropriated $238 million over the next biennium for save-the-Sound programs that over a longer period were expected to cost at least $8 billion. That $8 billion was never supposed to be all new money. The Partnership is supposed to channel existing revenue streams toward programs that fit into its blueprint for the Sound. But obviously, neither the initial appropriation nor those existing revenue streams will produce enough cash. Where is the rest of the money going to come from?

Nobody knows. Most people who have given the issue much thought think the Sound needs a dedicated source of funding, something that generates money just for restoration and preservation programs. The Puget Sound Partnership went to Olympia in 2009 hoping for a statute that would enable voters in the 12 counties bordering Puget Sound to create an improvement district that could raise money for restoring the Sound. If the enabling legislation had been passed, a tax or taxes to raise money for Puget Sound would have required a vote by the improvement district’s governing body. Creation of the governing body would have required a vote by the people who lived in the 12 counties. That would have required a campaign to convince people they wanted to be taxed by yet another governmental entity.

That, in turn, would have required decisions about how the vote would be structured — and what the governmental entity would be. The Partnershp's first director, David Dicks, envisioned a system in which seven counties, including King, would have had to vote for the district. If seven or more had said yes, any county voting no would have had to go along. Counties plus the largest cities would somehow have been represented on the governing board, as they are on the board of Sound Transit.But Olympia wasn't keen on new taxes. The improvement district didn’t even come up for a vote. The idea was put aside for a more opportune time. That time hasn't come.

"The most fundamental problem we've had," says John Lombard, author of Saving Puget Sound, "is to raise adequate revenue to pay for these things." Lombard envisions a tax or taxes that force people to pay for their environmental sins. (At a panel discussion a few years ago, he mentioned a possible tax on removal of water from the natural ecosystem.) He thinks it should be possible to "get people to really recognize that our actions are having consequences and there are practical ways that we can create economic costs associated with those actions so that people do less of them." There's plenty of precedent: Lombard notes the legislative willingness to increase taxes on tobacco and alcohol over the years, and more recently to vote for soda-pop taxes. Most people realize the problems with that smoking, drinking, and consuming high-sugar beverages. "Therefore," he says, "it's the one place where they've been able to raise money. This [idea of enivronmental sin taxes] is really the same basic argument."

"I see us getting around [the current tax aversion] in two ways," Lombard says. In addition to taxing sin, he favors "looking at this as tax reform and combining a set of these kinds of environmental taxes with tax cuts . . . . .You can put this in the most simple terms: We want to tax economic bads . . . and we want to reduce taxes on economic goods."

"If we don't do it, we might as well give up," Lombard says. "If we all think we have some God-given right to contribute to the problem without paying any charge whatsover, then any discussion about how much we care about this place and want to restore it is just empty rhetoric."

Even raising money may prove less challenging than persuading people that we must change the pattern of land use around Puget Sound. ”It’s all land use,” Bill Ruckelshaus said five years ago. Gregoire agreed. She acknowledged that getting people to change patterns of land use would be a hard sell, but added that it would have been even harder earlier. It's still hard. "There certainly are points of contention" about restoring the Sound, Ruckelshaus says. "The primary one is land use." Something there is in citizens that does not like other people telling them what they can't do on their own land — especially if those other people aren't from around here. Ruckelshaus talks about "how difficult it is to draft those regulations centrally and get any degreee of enthusiasm out of the landowners." He figures that planning at the watershed level may be the way to go.

It's a dilemma: On one hand, how do you get people to buy into the process unless you let them make decisions at a local level? On the other, how do you solve a regional problem if each part of the region can go its own way — or can simply opt out?

A lot of people’s minds clearly haven’t 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. Where should we start? University of Washington geologist David Montgomery has been arguing for years that we should start with lightly-developed flood plains. Once upon a time, local rivers meandered through braided channels, flowing beneath or around huge log jams, periodically spilling out onto the low-lying ground beside them. Now, they mostly run unimpeded through single channels, diked off from their natural floodplains. And yet, Montgomery has written, “Floodplain restoration presents our best opportunity to provide salmon with sanctuaries where their interests would not be sacrificed to human interests over the next century.”

It's crucial to think about such things long-term. The regional environmental group Forterra's basic insight is that over the next century, if nothing changes as the Puget Sound area's population doubles (as it is universally expected to do), virtually the entire landscape will be paved or sodded from salt water to the Cascades. Currently, the Growth Management Act channels development away from rural areas. But it's not foolproof. In the short run, a little development outside the lines doesn't do any harm. In the long run, it will be transformative. That's the basic premise, too, of Montgomery, a 2008 MacArthur fellow.

Nine years ago, in his book, King of Fish, Montgomery  advocated turning the lightly developed floodplains into greenbelts, and letting the rivers flood them again as nature intended. We could create a network of productive habitat and public open space. We could stop subsidizing the destruction of habitat. He has modified his original idea, but not much. He still thinks that letting the floodplains flood is probably "the most cost-effective thing we could do to have a lot of people and a lot of fish share the landscape. . . I think that argument is probably just as good today as it was then." However, he no longer thinks that absolutely everyone should clear out. "The caveat of course is that some of our best farmland is also in flood plains," he says. "Today I'd do a hybrid of farms and greenbelt." However obvious a strategy of restoring flood plains seems to Montgomery, he realizes that it's not obvious to everyone else. Instead of letting the rivers flood, in many places "we're talking about building the levees up."

Where do we go from here? No one has provided charismatic leadership. Some people have thought from the start that the Partnership should be headed by the proverbial man on a white horse. It hasn't been. Gregoire, who obviously cares about the Sound, has been largely invisible. So far, neither candidate to succeed her has featured the Sound in his campaign. Can we get far without more visible leadership? Ruckelshaus suggests that it would be useful, although he doubts we'll see any sign of it before the election. He sees "a lot of people vying for that role," but, he says, "I think they need the imprimature of the Governor. Or she could do it herself." He observes that "she does that from time to time."

Of course, Gregoire's term is just about over and a new "person is not likely to emerge while this campaign is going on." Will the Sound become an issue in the campaign? Aside from some harmless platitudes, will it even be mentioned? So far, the signs aren't good. And why should they be? Virtually everyone cares about the Sound — who doesn't? — but actually doing something about it would require taxes, regulation, the expenditure of political capital. Do you hear the masses clamoring for anything like that? Right.

Ruckleshaus has long said that restoring the Sound requires a cultural shift. Obviously, cultural change is nothing you can count on. But Manning doesn't think it's hopeless. "Social norms can change," he says. "And they do change." Just look at our society's view of smoking.

"We have an estuary that can be restored, that can be saved," Manning says, "and if we don't do it, we will regret it for so long. . . . If we can't do it with the politics we have and the values we have, it can't be done."


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


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.