Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Future of The Puget Sound

"Return to the Land of the Head Hunters" (Edward Curtis)
“The” Puget Sound. Does reading or hearing that make your skin crawl, your ears ring? How about riding “the” Metro? Go to “the” Husky Stadium to watch the Huskies play? Blame those Californians for polluting the Puget Sound stylebook; they should go back to where they came from. Maybe then we can go back to calling this place "Whulge."

When I edited copy at People For Puget Sound, removing the offending “the” before Puget Sound was a simple line indicating deletion. These days, I hear “the Puget Sound” said every once in a while but I hear all sorts of strange pronunciations and syntax from folks who have moved here and from folks who grew up here. Not being a sensitive-eared native but a local resident for only about 45 years, I guess I’m still trying to fit in with the real Northwestern natives.

Mossback Knute Berger at Crosscut [ Did you just say ‘The’ Puget Sound? ] and KUOW’s Bill Radke [ Stop Calling It 'The' Puget Sound ] seem to be some of the sensitive-eared types living and making pronouncements in Mighty Seattle.

Does it matter? “Puget Sound” and “the Puget Sound” are, for practical purposes, abstractions, a name on a map, a verbal description using one’s hands. I sat through years of focus group discussions listening to participants grapple with describing where Puget Sound is. Folks on the Peninsula live on the Juan de Fuca Strait. Folks in Bellingham live on Bellingham Bay or Rosario Strait. People think of themselves as living on Birch Bay and Budd Inlet, on Hood Canal, on Rich Passage, in Eagle Harbor and, even in Seattle, most likely on Elliott Bay instead of Puget Sound. One woman meekly asked whether she was crossing “Puget Sound” when she went to and from work over the I-90 bridge.

Talk to British Columbia neighbors about the waters of the U.S. Northwest Straits that border their Strait of Georgia and they’ll be quick to point out that those are the Southwest Straits as far as they are concerned. And the folks in the San Juan Islands and the Canadian Gulf Islands? They live surrounded by the Sea of Paradise.

The fact that the Puget Sound and Puget Sound are abstractions has been a challenge and an obstacle faced by folks who worked and are working for the future of Puget Sound: The Puget Sound Water Quality Authority, the Puget Sound Action Team, the Puget Sound Partnership, People For Puget Sound. The future that people care for is the future that touches them. Our environments are local.

I honestly don’t care if somebody calls it the Puget Sound or Puget Sound as long as they put their mind and their heart and their hands around doing all they can to protect and restore the lands and waters they care for. Judging how people talk is basically off-putting, especially if you think you’re right and others are not. It’s also arrogant to forget that this place had names for its places long before Captain George Vancouver sailed into these waters.

Before Vancouver, this place was called “WulcH,” ( Anglicized to “Whulge” or “Whulj”) from the Lushootseed name. These days, thanks to the efforts of Bert Webber, I like to call the land and the waters of this great place the Salish Sea. And if we’re not all planning to go  back to where we came from, it might deepen our appreciation for living here if we think about living on the flanks and at the feet of Komo Kulshan, Shuksan and Tahoma.

--Mike Sato

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Monster of the Deep

Grant Jones in his skiff (Kaija Jones photo)

Guest blog by Grant Jones

It was early August in 1953 at Richmond Beach. I was rowing out after breakfast on the high tide to drift along the drop off about a half-mile out. I had caught a big English Sole fourteen inches long on a strip of frozen herring. As the tide ebbed out and the farthest-out sandbars came into sunlight, I came up with a plan.

I wanted to find out if there were still big Halibut in Puget Sound. In my fishbox I carried a huge halibut hook four inches on the shank. I tied it securely with a bowline knot onto the loose bight of a twelve-inch spool of thick, waxed handline a thousand feet long. I baited it with the whole body of that big sole, working the hook through the back so its white blind side would be exposed to the sunlight filtering into the deep. I then rowed out over a mile beyond the drop off and played out the handline that coursed through my fingers, drug down by a two-pound lead. It took more than a minute, maybe two, for the weight to pull that big flounder all the way down six‑hundred feet to the bottom below. The tide had turned and was flooding back toward Seattle. I hauled the line in a few feet and quickly dropped it so I could feel the lead bounce along the bottom.

Nothing happened for over an hour as I drifted southward from Point Wells toward Duffy’s Point bouncing that flounder off the sandy channel, six-hundred feet or sixty stories below. Then, almost imperceptively, the line, which had been holding almost straight down, slightly aft from the bow, started to slowly pull between my thumb and forefinger and then play out ahead like a walking dog toward the west. Was I just imagining this?

I let out twenty or thirty feet of slack and tied it off around the front seat, to see if it was just a snag and would hold me suspended in one position, fishtailing me slightly back and forth in the current. Instead the line jerked violently and the skiff veered westward at about three knots, faster than you can walk. Oh, crap!

At six o’clock, after being pulled south in zigzags three miles almost to Jefferson Head, past the Degaussing Station, for two-maybe-three hours, I was getting into the shipping lanes heading for Elliott Bay and would be a threat to navigation. This fish didn’t act like a halibut, didn’t want to head for the beach; it was heading for the deep canyon that reaches 800 feet out in the middle of this great estuarine Puget River. If I wanted to get home that night, I’d have to give up my prize. When I touched my fish knife to the thick, trembling handline, it snapped like a bowstring against my cheek. I noticed that there were two, deep friction grooves in the gunwales of my skiff, one on each side of the bow.

With the severed handline hanging loose in my hands, fear suddenly pressed around me. I started to tremble and the back of my neck felt like burning ice with electric nettles. Had I been experiencing the whole adventure with a friend, this moment would have brought hoots and hollers, but being alone out there was something else, like an all-engulfing prayer, as I fell to my knees out of the wind and felt the warm and fragrant cedar floorboards under my hands to clear my head, as the wind gently rocked the skiff in the riptide.

It was like time had crashed and some huge power of nature held me in its arms. That deep-channel monster fish released me, but in the process became my friend and protector.

It took three hours to row back with the outgoing ebb tide. After dragging the skiff up the beach and over the logs and heaving it on top of the car, I drove the old Falcon station wagon two blocks up the hill to the house and rolled into bed at ten o’clock. It was still light and I couldn’t fall to sleep until after midnight. It was a quarter moon, and its crescent drew a silver line across the Sound out to where I had met my fifteen-foot Sixgill Cowshark, my own real monster of the deep.

Every landscape can surround you if you’re alive to it. It can embrace you with its monstrous spirit, reaching out to both scare and honor you. In my monster fish, I had discovered an earth-mate partner. I would never be the same or even think the same way again about my mission. I hope something like this has happened to you. If it hasn’t, maybe you can go out looking for it. A monster fish like this is your guide to powerful spirits residing in the landscape of the Salish Sea. They can awake your heart. For me, this experience with another being made the land and sea breathe. It made rivers talk and mountains groan. And their heartbeats have been with me forever.

Grant Jones was born a “beach kid,” which means he grew up on the tide flats at Richmond Beach in the North Central Sound Region. This childhood experience helped him become deeply attached to estuaries and rivers of the Salish Sea and to become a landscape poet, environmental designer and steward. He co-founded Jones & Jones in 1970, the award winning architectural and landscape architectural and planning firm, with their first job being to design a conservation plan for the Nooksack River. Now retired, he lives on his farm in the Okanogan Valley of North-Central Washington where he is creating a native plant nursery-arboretum with his wife, Chong-hui.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

What Would Dr. King Do?

W.F. Woolworth sit-in, 1960
I’m thinking today about the terrible civil disruption black people cause sitting down in all-white lunch counter restaurants and sitting in the front seats of city buses because they wanted to be treated as equals. I’m thinking today of the inconvenience it cause people when folks in Baltimore gathered downtown to protest the death of Freddy Gray because black lives matter and forced a cancellation of an Orioles baseball game. I’m thinking today of First Nations folks occupying where the Site C dam is planned to be built in northern British Columbia because that’s sacred tribal grounds. I’m thinking today of five activist who were convicted last Friday of trespassing because they chained themselves to railroad property protesting coal trains coming through Puget Sound.

It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and I’m thinking about making a statement in what you believe in with your voice, your body and your heart.

And then I think about guys with big cowboy hats and rifles occupying an Oregon nature reserve because they want federal lands given back to local governments. I think about Americans who set off bombs that killed and crippled people in Oklahoma City and at the Boston Marathon because they believed in some militant cause.  I think about Islamic State militants with guns and suicide belts shooting people and bombing hotels, concert halls, markets, and restaurants because they want religious and political power.

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day I think about how, if we care, we have causes that we believe in and speak out for, march for, sit in and occupy for. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day I think about how we can discuss and  understand and argue about the differences in our beliefs and our causes.  But the line is drawn in discussion when the gun and the bomb are at hand. There is no discussion until the gun and the bomb are put down, there is no legitimacy to a belief or a cause while the gun and the bomb are brandished, there is no justice that comes out of the barrel of a gun.

On MLK Day, we speak out, sit in and march on.

--Mike Sato

Monday, January 11, 2016

Why “Tug Weather" And Tugs?

Jeffrey Foss [Joel Kifer/Marine Traffic]
A reader of the Salish Sea News and Weather news blog this past weekend asked why the news clippings end with report of the “tug weather” forecast for the west end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. To explain: The daily “tug weather” report keeps our focus on one of the most vulnerable places in our Sound and Straits where large vessel mishaps would prove disastrous.




I began including “tug weather” from the mid- to late- ‘90s in the news clips when the citizens’ group People For Puget Sound worked with other environmental groups, elected officials, local governments and treaty tribes to station a rescue tug at Neah Bay to respond to any vessel in distress at the entrance of the Strait and along the coast. What might have seemed to be practical good sense and cheap insurance that would avoid disaster in an area where tug assistance was not readily available for oil tankers and bulk carriers proved to be a 10-plus-year campaign.

Through the efforts of many people we first got a Navy rescue tug temporarily stationed at Neah Bay thanks to the political prowess of Representative Norm Dicks, followed by a rescue tug paid by the state and stationed at Neah Bay during the winter months. But, as activist Doug Scott quipped, “Captain Hazelwood [of the infamous Exxon Valdez disaster] didn’t just drink in the winter,” the goal was to have a rescue tug on duty throughout the year. Today, a rescue tug stands by all year long at Neah Bay and is paid for by the shipping industry.

Worth it? You bet: Last week the tug Jeffrey Foss responded to the bulk carrier MV Gallia Graeca which lost power outbound near the mouth of the Strait and towed the vessel to Victoria [Bulk carrier loses power at entrance to Strait of Juan de Fuca; vessel tugged to Victoria].

Cheap insurance? The SeaDoc Society and Swinomish Tribe have documented the risks posed by plans of six projects to make the Salish Sea a coal- and oil-port Mecca [Energy development impacts for the Salish Sea] and the risks of damage to marine resources should a vessel accident occur in Puget Sound and Georgia Strait transboundary waters. Increased vessel traffic calls not only for continued response tug presence at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca but also increased tug response capabilities, spill response equipment and trained responders, and enhanced US/Canada spill coordination in the Haro and Rosario straits waters.

Most improvements in vessel safety and oil spill response have come after a disaster. Sometimes good sense and cheap insurance comes out of strong leadership before a disaster occurs. With the lifting of the ban on exporting US oil to foreign countries, reporter Bob Simmons provided a heartening reminder of how Washington Senator Warren G. Magnuson kept supertankers out of Puget Sound and limited oil refinery expansion-- before a disaster happened [Taunting Maggie’s Ghost].

It takes engaged citizens, political will and leadership to get oil and coal guys and shippers to step up to their responsibilities to care for the commons they do business in and on. I think about that every morning when I scan and post the day’s “tug weather” forecast. Hope you will, too.

--Mike Sato

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Call For Energy Policy Reform in Washington

(Image: Arctic Sun LLC)

Guest blog by Russ Borgmann

The industrialized world is experiencing an energy renaissance.  And the U.S. is at the nexus of that regeneration. There are several beacons signaling this new energy landscape:

  • The costs to maintain the centralized electric grid are increasing, and poses increasing security risks
  • Distributed energy costs are decreasing
  • The growing patchwork of clean energy alternatives requires cohesive integration with the grid
  • Customers, regulators, and politicians are increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo
  • Consumer preferences are changing, no longer content for utilities to merely provide electricity to end users.  Now consumers are a central point (node) in the grid
  • There is a degradation (real and perceived) in the quality of electric utility service
These factors constitute a paradigm shift, not merely incremental change.  Customers, the private sector, the public sector, regulatory agencies, Public Utility Districts (PUDs), and Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) are all experiencing a fundamental shift to electricity that is clean, efficient, diverse, and secure. The Paris Climate Conference (COP 21) highlights the need to reduce our region’s reliance on coal-fired electricity from places like Colstrip.  G20 nations spend $452 billion per year subsidizing fossil fuel production.  That’s nearly four times the global spending on renewable energy subsidies.  It is no longer true that clean energy is more expensive, especially when accounting for the true costs associated with fossil fuels – GHG emissions, carbon taxes, healthcare costs, and environmental costs, to name a few.  The equation is simple.  Now clean energy equals sustainable economic development.

Traditionally, utilities were often rewarded for under-utilized, expensive assets. Regulation, under the guise of reliability and resilience, often rewarded building a capital-inefficient system.  In WA, regulators only review electric infrastructure projects AFTER being built, not before.  As such, reimbursement is rarely denied, and customers pay the project costs plus an authorized rate of return on the “investment” via higher electricity rates, typically spread over forty years.  WA regulation is not sufficient to limit profits to IOUs as a result of buying and building excessive, under-utilized assets which quickly become obsolete.  Centralized electrical systems also pose greater physical and cyber-security terrorism risks as well as greater vulnerability to natural disasters, like earthquakes, and extreme weather.  Now, with the cost of renewable energy sources declining, more choices are available for customers.  Certain areas of the country are seeing free market forces compete for a customer’s business.  In Texas, for example, TXU is offering free power after 9pm.  Coupled with energy storage, like Tesla’s PowerWall, small businesses and residential customers are now afforded a greater degree of energy interdependence. Many Texas customers can choose from a variety of electricity source/pricing options, from multiple, competitive electricity suppliers.  The day is dawning when we will unlock the potential to make electrons more freely available to all.

Does this spell doom for electric utility companies?  Not for those utilities that are reading the handwriting on the wall.  Decoupling is an important first step, making utilities agnostic.  In some states, regulators have disassociated (decoupled) a utility’s profits from its sales of electricity.  But the next step is crucial:  How do we properly incentivize utilities to embrace clean energy rather than push it away, relegated to the edges of their energy portfolio offering? Utilities must consider becoming a platform – a platform offering a menu of choices.  Forward-thinking utilities are becoming more nimble and innovative, ultimately playing a part in integration supervision and optimization of the grid in the next generation “Internet of Electricity”.  Technology is available today to connect all types of grid assets with one another, much like today’s internet servers and cloud-based services. Technical challenges are solvable. Utility business models, especially for IOUs, are slower to adapt to offering new services with competitive pricing. Yet if utilities don’t adapt, they will be consigned to becoming commodity providers, stuck maintaining their aging and obsolete assets, akin to the telecommunications industry with landline assets in the digital mobile age.

How do utilities get paid in this model?  New York’s “REV” program offers some examples of what’s possible when regulators, utilities, and cities work together to serve the best interests of all stakeholders and customers to modernize the grid:
  • Utilities can share in the cost savings when they promote clean energy alternatives
  • Utilities and cities, with state-level mandates and incentives, can issue RFPs for the best alternatives. Crowd competitive alternatives IN, not out.  Let the market respond to the problem, rather than rely on a utility to dictate a solution.
  • Utilities and cities, with state-level incentives, can promote micro-grid competitions that provide cash awards for efficient, cost-savings solutions.  Cash awards are paid from the cost savings of the best alternatives.
Ideas like these generate diverse, distributed, and more secure energy sources. The old rate-based compensation model is replaced by an outcome-based compensation model.  Free market economics allow for the best solutions to rise to the surface.  Clean energy that is efficient and saves money are better alternatives for all participants as well as the environment.  And the cost savings can be mutually shared across all invested stakeholders and customers.  In some states, the old compensation model that subsidizes expensive, centralized infrastructure (hard costs), is already giving way to a new model of sharing in the savings and reducing soft costs.

How do we usher in this sweeping energy renaissance in Washington State? Washington is long overdue for regulatory reform.  State agencies must lead by example with a combination of mandates and incentives.  Governor Inslee is one of the country’s leaders supporting clean energy reform.  It is time to lend more bi-partisan support to legislation and regulatory reform to make this energy renaissance a reality in Washington.  Electricity regulatory reform is a non-partisan issue that can promote free market competition and in-state renewable energy job creation.

Before us lies an opportunity to be a centerpiece of clean energy policy and implementation.  Washington has abundant renewable energy resources that can be better utilized, especially when combined with energy storage technologies now available.  And Washington possesses a high-tech workforce already working on the “Internet of Electricity”.  Washington can become a Clean Energy Innovation Center that can serve as a role model for the rest of the U.S.  Please don’t leave Washington in the dark – stumbling along with outdated regulations that reward expensive, centralized, obsolete, electricity infrastructure that poses greater security risks.  We can cling to old monopolistic business practices, or we can embrace free market forces to power innovation.  Now is the time to light the way of transparent regulatory reform to ensure a bright future for Washington – a future that rewards affordable, distributed, reliable, resilient, and renewable power as part of a modernized grid.

Russell Borgmann of Bellevue, Washington is a technology management consultant and an advocate for sensible energy alternatives and efficient grid optimization in the Pacific Northwest. Russ advocates Washington regulatory reform to promote rapid absorption of new technologies, innovation, and entrepreneurship to integrate distributed energy resources as part of a modernized grid.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Salish Sea Protection and Improvement: Cases for Patience … And a Little Optimism

Pete Haase (Skagit Valley Herald)
Guest blog by Pete Haase

I read the recent State of the Sound report produced by the Puget Sound Partnership and I was conflicted.  There is a lot of so-so news, too much not-so-good news, and not much good news. There are a lot of pretty pictures.  It is especially troublesome to read that so much money has been spent and that so many of the “Action Items” are finished or at least going well but the “Indicators of Success” are pretty well stuck.  As you might expect, by diving into the Action Agenda from 2012 and 2014, you will find far too many of the Action Items involved studies, meetings, reports, and organizing-- with only a few being of the “fix things” sort.

But I think there are reasons for hope and here are a few:

First, the 2016 version of the Action Agenda will be focused on strategic activities (both “on the ground” and “in the water”) that are expected to directly impact the indicators of success.  That need has been clearly understood by the Partnership.  There are many more actions in work around the greater “Puget Sound” that will be good for the future yet are outside the funding scope and/or direct purview of the Puget Sound Partnership.  Some are in Canada and others are small, local actions with no avenue or interest for inclusion in the grand Action Agenda. Some not-so-small campaigns (such as the relatively grass-roots resistances to coal and oil and increased vessel traffic) don’t even have a place at the Puget Sound Partnership table, yet have massive public participation and direct impact on both sea level rise and ocean acidification.

Here is another reason for hope:

 “Something fishy: AmeriCorps crews work with DNR” is a video that highlights work done by the small group of Washington Conservation Corp (WCC) youth with the Department of Natural Resources Aquatics Reserves program.  Regardless of the positive impact of the work, imagine what these folks will keep bringing to the table for the rest of their lives – and the influence they can have for a better environment.  Then think of all the other AmeriCorps youth (WCC is an AmeriCorps program) we have working in the environment throughout the greater Puget Sound – there are maybe a dozen or more here in Skagit County where I live.  We’ve all known some – maybe many – of these amazingly capable youth, and we get a new batch every year.  All these enthused folks with experience and first-hand knowledge about how to make it all better over time will be a force to be reckoned with and many probably already are as they have dispersed far and wide.  Programs like this were not in place 35 years ago when big damage was happening to our lands and waters.

And another reason:

Recently I helped our local Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group work with a large group of 8th graders during a day of “see-and-learn” visits throughout their local watershed. They had lots of hands-on water sampling and dabbling in topics like wetlands, nearshores, beaches and human impacts.  This event is part of a year-long program for these kids (and for several other schools in the area as well) to get in-depth exposure to their unique outdoor environment and to experience it.  Here’s another program that was not in place for our last generations, and one that is bound to help equip these folks to make better choices and policy about their environment.  We are pretty sure they already have had a bit of a positive effect on their parents, neighbors and families.

And finally:

Here in the northern counties of the greater Puget Sound we are fortunate to have the Northwest Straits Initiative and the seven County Marine Resources Committees that the Initiative supports.  Recently the whole group had their day-and-a-half annual conference in Bellingham with about130 people attending.  Besides the variety and impact of the various projects and activities showcased by these folks, it was striking also to see the almost equal distribution of male and female and likewise “young” and “old."  This is not a “dying” operation!

So, yes, it will take more money and more time and more effort – but we have done well at preparing and activating a youthful bunch that will easily multiply the efforts of the recent past.  Give them time and a chance.

[Pete Haase is an energetic environmental volunteer in Skagit County.  He likes being in the field with teams, doing things that he hopes will make a difference.  Much of what he does is citizen science.  Pete also likes engaging the public, helping them appreciate volunteer efforts and getting them to add their voices in support of protection and restoration. Pete has been named by RE Sources as a 2015 environmental hero.]

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Guns Are Not Outlawed; Outlaws Have Guns

It’s been an awful couple of weeks of shootings, people killing and wounding lots of other people. Guns, long guns, rifles, assault weapons, and thoughts and prayers have been top of mind and top of the news. Two news items amidst the guns, long guns, rifles, assault weapons and thoughts and prayers I’ve been chewing on this past week.

The first is an account of a theft of assault-style weapons from a pickup parked at a Bellingham motel last weekend. [Assault rifles, pistols stolen from truck at Bellingham hotel ] (The weapons are listed in the news article and a photo of the stolen weapons was posted to Craigslist, presumably by their former owner.)

You can read the story yourself but I’ve pondered what this person was doing with so many weapons of this type and why he would leave them in his truck overnight and how thieves would have known these weapons were in the truck.

Maybe there’s a very reasonable and legal answer (“He just has guns, lots of guns,” [police Lt. Bob] Vander Yacht said) as to why he had the weapons and why he’d left them in the truck overnight. (“There’s never a good time to leave a gun locked up in a vehicle,” Vander Yacht said.”)

The police, according to the article, continue to investigate.

Which means that some outlaws now have a small arsenal of assault-style weapons which pisses me off both at this dick-head out-of-towner and these sleazeball outlaws.

Maybe I’d be just as pissed off if someone brought his arsenal into a motel room next to mine. These days who knows who’s carrying a weapon since people are carrying weapons supposedly to protect themselves from other carrying weapons.

Which bring me to the report that the South African Supreme Court of Appeals reversed Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius’ lower court decision of manslaughter to murder. [Oscar Pistorius guilty of murdering Reeva Steenkamp]

Pistorius shot Steenkamp four times through a locked bathroom door. The court’s decision found the lower court’s ruling “fundamentally flawed.” Pistorius should have foreseen that his firing of a gun would have killed whoever was behind the door in his bathroom, regardless of whether he thought it was Steenkamp or an intruder.

Even in gun-obsessed South Africa, there are limits. In reading the judgment, Judge Eric Leach said, "not only did he not know who was behind the door, he did not know whether that person in fact constituted any threat to him. In these circumstances, although he may have been anxious, it is inconceivable that a rational person could have believed he was entitled to fire at this person with a heavy-calibre firearm." [Oscar Pistorius and South Africa's gun obsession]

OK, guns don’t kill, people kill. Oscar Pretorius was obsessed with firearms. Oscar Pretorius is an outlaw.

You can say your prayers and send your thoughts. You can write Page One editorials like the New York Times did this past weekend. [End the Gun Epidemic in America] Nothing will change until we change the political power around guns—and that political power does not come out of the barrel of a gun.

--Mike Sato