Thursday, November 7, 2013

Now, What About Puget Sound?

Vital signs status(2013 SOS, Page 70)
It’s pretty obvious that the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency charged with coordinating the recovery of Puget Sound, doesn’t want to be held accountable for what it’s supposed to be doing— namely, having a healthy Sound that’s fishable, swimmable and diggable by the year 2020.

The authors of the 2013 State of the Sound report issued last week wrote: “Puget Sound remains in crisis...It is increasingly likely that we will not reach our legislatively established targets by 2020.” (As reported in “New Report: Puget Sound Still In ‘Critical Condition’ But Don’t Unplug Life Support Yet”)

The 2013 report issued last week reads like the 2012 report: things got better in a few areas, things got worse or didn’t get better in other areas, and, due to a lack of data for some things, the Partnership couldn’t tell what’s going on for the better or the worse.

Maybe the best that can be said is that the goal of 2020 was unrealistic and that the things that are getting worse or not getting better (orca population, chinook salmon recovery, eelgrass beds, marine water quality, nearshore habitat) are too hard to do.

The Partnership’s Leadership Council chair Martha Kongsgaard chose to put it this way: “Indicators like acres of restored habitat and reopening shellfish beds respond more quickly to management strategies if they are given the proper resources. In contrast, herring or orca populations are examples of more complicated indicators for which meaningful improvements might not be seen for decades.” (Puget Sound Partnership E-Newsletter, November 5 )

I don’t think the health of the Sound has decades left. I hope I’m wrong but I don’t get any sense of urgency that the health of Puget Sound is a priority any more. If there is no deadline tied to a goal, what’s a goal worth, really?

I received a couple of comments when I posted the news story last week about this year’s State of the Sound report:

One reader wrote: “"Ecology has already issued regulations (NPDES) that will cause the remaining Puget Sound basin to be developed in (effectively) the same way that the first half was developed. PSP has acquiesced. No amount of protest by the 14 scientists or People for Puget Sound (now deceased) has been able to shift Ecology or PSP. I think that we have already unplugged life support."

Another reader made four points in response:

One: The Puget Sound Partnership and its key, major members should stop doing so much “Good Tidings” publicity and be much more realistic in their bloviating.  What little “Public Relations” they use is way, way off the mark of what the situation is and what needs to happen.  They create no sense of urgency.

“Two:  Probably the 21 Targets are not quite the right way to measure the condition of Puget Sound.  I think the three strategic initiatives of Shellfish, Stormwater and Habitat might, instead, each have a couple of targets that are directly influenced by the various planned actions.  Then we could better assess the benefits of various actions – which we can’t do now.

“Three: The PUBLIC needs some simple, consistent, factual, realistic messages about conditions, causes, and actions needed.  So far those that have been presented are honorable, Pollyanna spits in the proverbial bucket.  I suspect this will need to come from non-profits because the messages will mostly not be very politically palatable.

“Four:  The esteemed, nice, credible, caring Leaders should LEAD.  Pretty much all they do is sit in meetings and mainly nod with the presentations and now and then suggest a change/ask a question.  But they set no goals, they don’t demand changes, they are not out in front championing the effort, they don’t stand for hard things like “Quit approving building permits in flood-ways”, they don’t coach the team members and they are not responsible for anything remotely related to actually improving the Sound.  They just make sure documents get released according to schedule.”

There’s urgency in the campaign to save the Sound right before us— if we choose to see it. For example, the state Fish and Wildlife Department is revising the Hydraulic Code, the permit system that is meant to ensure that no in-water construction (like piers, bulkheads, discharge pipes, marinas, oil and coal and gravel terminals) results in net loss of critical nearshore habitats or destroys or disturbs spawning and rearing fish habitat. There’s urgency to fix the current administration of the permit system and to improve the rules to truly protect nearshore habitat in Puget Sound-- if we choose to see it.

But maybe specifically saving Puget Sound nearshore habitat is too hard politically when private interests are involved; maybe saving Puget Sound in general is too hard. The new urgency today is climate change and ocean acidification, but if you think saving Puget Sound is hard, think about meeting some meaningful targets under real deadlines to reverse climate change and ocean acidification.

How far do you want to take the medical metaphor in applying it to Puget Sound? When the patient is in “critical condition” and in “crisis,” you don’t prescribe vitamins and teach wellness exercises. You do all that’s necessary to maintain vital signs and stability; you triage. For the Sound, that means moratoriums on development, prohibitions to prevent more harm, harvest closures, creating protected areas and reserves-- politically unpalatable and unpopular stuff to gain time to bring the patient back into a state of balance.

You can change the metaphor but not the reality.

What do you think?

--Mike Sato


  1. Mike, your prescriptions for "bringing the patient back into a state of balance" are practical and correct. Our "leaders" perceive the arena of action as a mitigation negoiation and of course looking at it this way they are shocked to realize nobody can pay for it; it's just too expensive to budget on paper. Well. we don't need budget numbers! We need to triage as you say. We need moratoriums, prohibitions, closures and reserves. We don't need measurements of the patient's condition which is critical to worse.. She's going to die if we don't do anything. With real triage she could make a comeback. Money can't fix it, but corrections can. Grant Jones

  2. This is so sad. The first question I have is, how to replace incompetent managers? It's a good idea, this entity, but only if it has the right leadership which knows how to get the public roused and the government moving.

    1. With all due respect I think this is not at all "the first question". Sure PSP has had it's share of less than inspiring leaders (O'Keefe) and maybe even incompetent ones (Dicks) but they didn't wake up one morning and decide to lead PSP. Someone put them there. I think it's important to hold those actually responsible for the actions (actually, inactions) at PSP. Governor Gregoire and the legislature created a hammer by committee and specifically designed something to NOT actually accomplish anything fundamental. They created a new bureaucracy with no authority and even set forth in the legislation which created the PSP that no existing jurisdiction would have any of it's existing powers impacted.
      As a result cities can and do still issue permits which serve exact opposite ends than that which the PSP says are critical to saving ad protecting the sound. State agencies literally walk away from PSP kumbaya meetings and behind closed doors laugh at the agency with it's lofty goals and no power whatsoever to get anything done.
      It was designed by policy makers who don't actually want to make the hard decisions necessary to accomplish real protection yet appear as though they are doing something about the sound.

      The reality is the policy makers can't lose - they can look like they are doing something about the sound, while not risking any alienation of the building/development/municipal crowd and realize no discernible political downside because voters, to the extent they are paying attention at all, think they are actually doing something. Nice work if you can get it, eh?

  3. If PSP is doing such a great job, why are so many other "concerned citizen" groups forming to fill gaps such as regulating industrial aquaculture which counties seem loath to address. Heather McFarlane

  4. The comments by Unknown - "As a result cities can and do still issue permits which serve exact opposite ends than that which the PSP says are critical to saving ad protecting the sound. State agencies literally walk away from PSP kumbaya meetings and behind closed doors laugh at the agency with it's lofty goals and no power whatsoever to get anything done." -are serious issues and deserve addressing and some response. After all - those State Agencies and Cities are also part of the "Puget Sound Partnership" and receive significant funding in its name.

  5. Thanks for engaging on this. I think everyone wants to take the credit for the successes; however, if in this partnership we are all responsible, then no one will end up being responsible for the failures. It's hard to be openly and constructively critical if you are part of the funding stream or want in; if you're not, then the opportunities for substantive public comment and participation are pretty limited. As for what the state of the Sound is, we need to have the information in as up-to-date and timely a manner as possible. As for communicating the state of the Sound, I'm still amazed that, in an age of marketing technology that can segment and target attitudes and behaviors, Puget Sound recovery still slogs along. Mike Sato

  6. Last I looked we still live in a democracy and as such our leaders are a reflection of "us", or at least "us" as reflected through a prism of total campaign spending and the personal filters we apply when making decisions at the "voting table". But increasingly, "us" are a fairly recent set of recruits from outside the region, and "Puget Sound" in its current state looks pretty good compared to where many of the newest "us" used to live. Therefore, the work to restore a Puget Sound to something that resembles the one fewer and fewer of "us" remember requires convincing 50+1% of "us" it matters. With no directive authority that may be the most important thing PSP can hope to accomplish. I suggest "we" should try to empower PSP to use every tool available to them to sell a healthy Puget Sound to "all" of "us" like it matters, or at the very least as if it is as important as the latest "i"Thing on our holiday shopping list.

  7. Great comments all.
    "Rabbits&#Guy", I absolutely agree with you, these are serious issues. I'm afraid however that there is no incentive for anyone to address or respond. Because the PSP is essentially a "feel good" legislative response to a very difficult and politically dangerous conundrum, giving money away serves the real purposes of policymakers and PSP and the agency has no authority (read: incentive) to publicize those who are working at counter purposes.
    "Jacques White", couldn't agree with you more about the Real Politic implications here. It is only when a majority of actual voters want change will change occur. I don't think "we" can "empower" the PSP when it's legal authority is non existent. I suggest the only thing, and the best thing we can do is demand actual progress and then reward (elect) those who do and punish (defeat) those who don't accomplish this.
    I am "unknown"...Russ Lehman

  8. Went to a presentation by Doug Tolchin of the Salish Sea Marine Sanctuary and Coastal Trail, inspiring. Are you familiar with that organization and their goals? I had to admit while I was excited about their goal of a designation for the whole Salish Sea as a marine sanctuary, the cynic is me was thinking, yea, right, that's going to happen. Not. But perhaps a grassroots groundswell could help? I just am amazed after so many years that the health of the Sound is not getting better despite all we know about the problems and pollution. What about the cleanup of Lake Washington back in the 1950s? (Or was it 1960s?). I thought that was a relative success, although maybe by today's standards it wasn't that much progress. Also wonder if the Northwest Straits Commission is still going.

    1. Good that you found it inspiring; good that you’re realistic enough to know that inspiration alone doesn’t create sanctuaries, reserves or preserves. The NW Straits Commission continues, as well as the local marine resources committees with varying levels of effectiveness and public engagement. There’s a history lesson that Doug Tolchin and his Salish Sea Sanctuary effort might benefit from if they are open to learning: the NW Straits Initiative in 1997 came out of the failed effort to establish a Northwest Straits National Marine Sanctuary. Puget Sound and BC NGOs worked hard to bring substance to Washington-British Columbia governmental cooperation agreements by proposing in 2000 what was called the Orca Pass International Stewardship Area ( using the momentum of the NW Straits Initiative, the Canadian proposal to create a Southern Gulf Islands Marine Conservation Area, and the emerging science around marine protected areas. San Juan County formally designated its waters as a stewardship area but more substantive federal, provincial and state recognition was not forthcoming due to treaty tribe concerns over fishing rights abrogation, mismatched jurisdictional authority in international waters, diminished government resources to pursue the effort, and eventual reduction in NGO funding. Overcome those impediments and we can move forward beyond inspiration. Mike Sato

    2. Interesting Mike, thanks for the history lesson. Obviously I wasn't paying that close attention back then. About 10 years ago I wrote a few newsletters for the NW Straits Commission that highlighted the efforts of the MRCs, subbing for their regular person (Suzanne?) and learned about their efforts to map forage fish habitat/beaches, etc. Not sure of Doug's background....anyway, going to do a blog post on their proposals.


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