Stop in the name of love

Puget Sound

Puget Sound

…before you break my heart, think it over … seems to be the tune that the Puget Sound, Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE), and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are singing to cities and counties. The tune will make it to the top of our charts but it may not be the tune of our choice.

The Puget Sound is not a local stream, river, or lake. It is a single marvelous ecosystem with a water body that has 1,864 miles of coastline that encompasses 18,000 square miles of watersheds. Ten thousand rivers and steams empty into it. It has countless avian, terrestrial, and marine species. Four million Washingtonians live within its still well forested basins.

Now, many new and old voices are expressing concern about the health of the Sound. Some believe we still have a chance to save it, others believe we’re too late. Recently the state’s Pollution Control Hearings Board in a seventy-page ruling ordered DOE to develop and enforce rules that will protect the Sound by requiring significant, almost radical, changes in how cities and counties are built and grow.

The City of Seattle, King County Wastewater, and DOE are expecting EPA to initiate Clean Water Act enforcement actions. This would require investments by the City of Seattle and King County’s Wastewater division to control combined sewer overflow (CSO) discharges into Lake Washington and the Puget Sound. These will cost Seattle ratepayers at least one to two billion dollars and Metro’s Wastewater possibly several hundred million dollars more.

But the question is not if we’re going to spend these funds, it is where they should be spent. All of these efforts are supposed to recover the Puget Sound. The elephant in the room is will they? Some clearly will, many others won’t. Quite frankly, we’re going to have to venture way outside our comfort zones for a solution that creates fewer problems than it solves.

The CSO dilemma is the most intriguing and the most disappointingly predictable. As usual, we will likely be required to expend lots of money to reduce local impacts upon the Sound without determining how that money should best be spent for the recovery of Puget Sound. Those who wish to protect the status quo will use age old arguments; regulators don’t allow for innovation; it will be impossible to harmonize the federal, and state approach; stakeholders are leery and often hostile of change; enforce existing laws; no one trusts scientists or the science; we should leave these decisions to the policy makers (politicians); my good projects wouldn’t qualify for funding; my great projects wouldn’t be prioritized; this would remove local capacity building (no pork); local dollars should be spent locally (pork in my backyard only); and, the status quo may not work well, but it is better than nothing. In large part, this is why the Sound will likely remain on life support for generations to come. Or, government will probably be forced to enable a substantial tax increase to finance the priorities that would actually make the Puget Sound healthier.

So, I posed a question to the staff and scientists of our King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks (DNRP). How can we align our resources to do what is best for Puget Sound? Now, this group of individuals has a well-earned reputation for being thoughtfully aggressive on environmental issues. Sometimes, this makes others uncomfortable, but this risk-taking has produced cutting-edge work that is well recognized for its excellence here and abroad. In a recent meeting they reduced my question to its essence; what if science ruled the day, what would we do?

You cannot break the Sound into small manageable pieces or fit it into silos that traditional enforcement approaches always require us to use. First DNRP staff recommends a watershed trading system that could redirect money to projects or programs to achieve a greater benefit for Puget Sound. Using CSO as an example, a particular CSO location could be measured for existing pollutant loading. In lieu of building the CSO project the owner of the CSO could solicit alternatives that must achieve a higher level of pollutant reduction and greater environmental benefit. They also proposed the owner of the CSO would be relieved of controlling the CSO if the agency paid for the alternative benefit. This is a cap and trade model similar to those being proposed to reduce the growth of emissions that are causing Global Warming. I must note, that in subsequent discussions this position was modified. These CSO projects of less benefit would only be deferred and credit for investing in higher priority projects would be established.

Secondly, they would establish a single governing authority for the Sound. This would reduce the myriad agencies responsible for management of Puget Sound. This agency would be responsible for managing a cap and trade system for the Sound and prioritizing the investments based on science. Participation would be voluntary. A city, county, or private entity would not be required to participate, nor could they be a beneficiary either. The science would establish a currency of scientific benefit for improved water quality, agricultural protection, habitat restoration, protection, or acquisitions. Therefore, we could fund projects from the mountain tops to the sea bed understanding the benefit of a measurable, all encompassing Puget Sound restoration program.

What if the water shed trading model proved to be unpalatable? DNRP recommended the adoption of an approach now used by the French. France was divided into six basins. An example would be the Seine Normandy Basin Authority (L’Agence de l’eau Seine-Normandie). Resource fees for water consumption and pollution discharge fund the agency. The system is comprehensive and funds priority projects in the basin. No jurisdictional walls! This basin entity funds farming, industrial programs, and waste treatment facilities. Everything is measured and plans are updated. All activities must actually improve water quality as established by the Seine Normandy Basin Authority.

Does the system in France work? We can only dream of this August 2, 2008 article in London’s Guardian newspaper, “For the first time since records began a healthy-looking sea trout has been discovered in the Seine, prompting Paris authorities to claim a resounding success in their bid to clean up the river after years of pollution and neglect…It is an amazing turnaround for a river, which, in the 1960s, was so full of human, agricultural and industrial waste that it was declared a biological wasteland. The Seine used to be so dirty that Parisians joked that swimming in it would be more effective suicide method than jumping off one of its bridges.” (Read full article.)

We need to put the Puget Sound Partnership on steroids. If not, we’ll have more Hood canals, and like Chesapeake Bay, dead zones. We have the benefit of the best marine scientists in the world living here in our back yard. We need to let their expertise guide the direction of our public policy and not allow self-imposed bureaucratic silos to impede the clean up work that needs to be done. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” This is one of great challenges of our generation.

Recent research indicates that Puget Sound orcas have the world’s highest body burdens of PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) and other contaminants of all marine mammals. Dioxins, PCBs and other chemicals in Puget Sound sediments pose risks to not only Orcas and marine life but all seafood consumers, including people.

Oxygen depletion in Puget Sound has resulted in virtual dead zones, where fish, crabs and other aquatic life are dying from lack of oxygen.

Learn more

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One response to “Stop in the name of love

  1. Jonathan Frodge

    A very thoughtful approach, but in order to ‘save the Sound’ most of the work is not out in the saltwater. It is in the freshwater, where the people live, where the pollutants enter the watershed. We will need to change our behaviors and habits before an organizational change will be successful.

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