Reports: Puget Sound getting sicker; Obama budget slashes money for Sound cleanup by 60%
Eight indicators show a continuing decline in Puget Sound, while seven other indicators show evidence of improvement, suggesting that on balance there’s a slippage in the health of the waterway that sustains orcas, salmon and people, according to our interpretation of the findings in the first new biennial report by Puget Sound Partnership. The Olympian calls it “a mixed bag of improvement and continued decline.”
However, Partnership executive director David Dicks sees it another way — “we are making progress.”
Meanwhile, President Obama’s proposed budget slashes money for Sound cleanup from this fiscal year’s $50 million to just $20 million — a 60 percent drop.
That’s despite the fact that Puget Sound in July gained the status of national treasures like Chesapeake Bay and the Everglades in the eyes of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The new status was thought to pave the way for substantially more millions in federal dollars to flow here to try to help restore pretty yet polluted Puget Sound, where some marine life are disappearing and orcas’ weakened bodies accumulate toxic PCBs .
And it’s not like the state government will pick up the slack. The Olympian reports that Puget Sound Partnership plans a light legislative session, backing only two bills covering the environment — “neither of which proposes strong proactive action on major problems facing the Sound.”
The new partnership report stretches for 156 pages, but this excerpt seems to sum it up:
Compared to historical conditions, the Puget Sound ecosystem shows signs of stress and degradation from human activity. For example, pollution and restricted marine harvests have reduced ecosystem support for human health and well-being. In addition, concerns about species viability and ongoing habitat alteration point to vulnerable biological systems in the region.
Altered stream flows and water quality are some of the underlying problems in the Puget Sound ecosystem.
There are also examples where the ecosystem has positively responded to management activities. For example, the quality of sediments in Elliott Bay is much improved over the late 1990s and the improvement happened at the same time as a decrease in tumors in fish.
“It leaves a critical question unanswered: are we on track to restore the Sound to health by the year 2020?” Kathy Fletcher of People for Puget Sound wrote on her blog. “…If we aren’t on track yet to restore the Sound to health by 2020, and I don’t think we are, we need to get on track.”
“One tough thing about saving Puget Sound is that we are still allowing more damage even as we try to clean up the mistakes of the past. A lesson from Chesapeake is that you can spend a lot of money and effort doing good things, but still lose ground overall. Sad to say, that’s been our story here in Puget Sound too. This is why we have the Puget Sound Partnership. This is why the law that created them is so heavy on ‘accountability.’ Will the Partnership get the job done? I sure hope so, because Puget Sound is running out of time.”
David Montgomery, a University of Washington geomorphologist, told KUOW reporter John Ryan: “If we’re really talking about restoring the health of Puget Sound, we need to reverse a number of trends, including the stormwater trend and restoring forest cover. We need to actually turn the numbers around so we see concrete improvement and not declines in the rate of decline.”
Dicks, seeming to seize on the good news in the report, said in a prepared statement :
The good news is we are making progress in our efforts to protect and restore Puget Sound. We have challenges ahead to meet our goal of achieving a clean Sound by 2020, but this report documents substantial improvements in the ecosystem.
Ecosystem performance evaluation and reporting is complex. This daunting task of linking actions to improving overall ecosystem conditions has eluded many of the other large restoration efforts in places like the Chesapeake Bay and the Everglades. We have significant issues ahead of us, but we are on a path to make this work in Puget Sound and it will take a committed effort by the Partnership and its many partners to be successful.
That’s more upbeat than his statement in September upon the launch of a campaign to encourage everyone to start washing cars in commercial car washes, scoop dog poop, and more:
“Puget Sound is dying, and many of us don’t realize that our own actions are contributing to its decline,” said Dicks. “The Puget Sound Starts Here campaign illustrates the severity of the problem and explains how each of us can be part of the solution by changing a few everyday activities. Everyone who lives in the Puget Sound region can make a difference.”
Regardless of how one interprets the new report, much work needs to be done if Puget Sound is to be saved.
“We have a long road ahead and more hurdles, but I’m confident our efforts are off to a good start,” Gov. Christine Gregoire said in the prepared statement. She contended: “It’s encouraging that even during these tough times we are continuing to make progress in Puget Sound cleanup.”
Indicators that show worsening trends, according to Puget Sound Partnership’s first biennial report:
1. Less fish for people to eat. Decreases in harvested amount for most types of finfish and shellfish from 1980s to 2000s. Possible causes: harvest and habitat impacts.
2. Forests grow fish, yet there’s less forestland, thanks to the expanding footprint of developed lands. Seven to 32 percent of forestland in Puget Sound counties were converted from forest to human uses from 1988 to 2004.
3. Orcas down in numbers — a 20 percent decline in southern resident population, meaning local orcas, in the 1990s. The numbers in the 2000s fell below mid-’90s peak. Possible causes: fewer salmon to eat, disturbance by boats, pollutants.
4. Spawning herring — a key to the food web — dropped 40 percent from 1970s to 2007, driven by decline at Cherry Point. Possible causes: overfishing, predation by other fish and animals, and other factors such as pollution, degraded nearshore habitat, endemic disease and parasites.
5. Farms are better for the environment than cities (farms provide habitat, for one thing), yet 4,300 acres of agricultural lands were converted to development from 2001 to 2006.
6. Eelgrass areas provide habitat for fish, yet they’re on a decline. Sites with year-to-year declines outnumber sites with increases in seven of the last eight years. Among possible causes: shoreline development affects water quality and habitat.
7. Climate change is messing with the amount and timing of water reaching major rivers. Earlier, higher winter flows and lower, earlier ending summer flows 1984-2008 compared to earlier period; declining portion of annual flow occurring in summer over 70-year record.
8. Flame retardant chemicals (PDBEs) are showing up at increasing levels in harbor seals. Possible cause: Increase in the use of PDBEs in global economy and loading into Puget Sound.
1. Pollution in shellfish growing areas. From 1994 to 2008, regulators upgraded about twice as much area as downgraded. Possible reasons: shellfish protection and pollution identification and control efforts.
2. Substantial increase in shellfish aquaculture from mid-80s to mid-2000s as industry grew to include new products.
3. On the bright side, Chinook salmon run size is greater than before it was listed for protection (before 1998) — however, numbers of spawning salmon remain far below recovery targets. Possible reasons for the good news is ocean conditions and possibly harvest.
4. Hood Canal summer chum run size is greater than before it was listed for protection (1998). Possible reasons: Ocean conditions and possibly hatchery management and reduced harvest.
5. Looking on the bright side, there’s been a slowing of the rate of the amount of land taken over by development (whose impervious surfaces are bad for Puget Sound, as they funnel polluted rainwater faster into the Sound). Developed land increased 3 percent from 2001 to 2006, which is slower than in prior five-year periods. Possible cause cited: Focus of development in already developed areas.
6. Decline in liver lesions in English sole in Elliott Bay in early 2000s and decline in PAH sediment concentrations from 1998 to 2007. Possible reason: Sediment cleanup and/or fewer PAHs finding their way into Elliott Bay.
7. Increase in annual average freshwater quality scores from longterm stations from 1990s through 2000s. Possibly due to water-quality improvement projects.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
1. Take cars to a commercial car wash, where wash water is properly handled. Car wash water can kill fish and be as potentially toxic as some industrial wastewater discharges.
2. Fix car leaks, or place cardboard under the car in the short term to catch leaking oil or fluids.
3. Use compost – instead of fertilizers or pesticides – to grow a healthy lawn and garden.
4. Pick up pet waste with a bag – both in the yard and in public places – and place it in the trash.
WHAT WOULD HELP PUGET SOUND EVEN MORE
As we mentioned in a prior story, the big question is whether the government will begin to require relatively simple building techniques to help absorb the extraordinarily dirty water that pours off parking lots, sidewalks, roofs, streets and other hard city surfaces.
That is the greatest future threat to Puget Sound.
“The most promising approach” to reining in stormwater pollution is so-called “low impact development,” the Seattle P-I reported, adding: “That includes ‘green roofs’ that soak up rainwater, ‘rain gardens’ that intercept water before it flows onto hard surfaces, cisterns, and porous pavement that allows rainwater to soak into the ground.” A Crosscut headline summed up the matter another way: “Restoring Puget Sound: It’s the land use, stupid! “
“Picking up dog shit isn’t going build that sense of urgency and public constituency to save the Sound,” Mike Sato, spokesman for People for Puget Sound, wrote in his blog post. “Cutting out the bull shit and getting down to the hard business of funding stormwater programs and changing land-use practices will.”
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