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Puget Sound can't cure itself

  • Visitors enjoy the beach at Mukilteo’s Lighthouse Park in January 2011. The beauty of local waters is deceptive; pollution has taken a heavy tol...

    Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

    Visitors enjoy the beach at Mukilteo’s Lighthouse Park in January 2011. The beauty of local waters is deceptive; pollution has taken a heavy toll on Puget Sound.

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By Gerry O'Keefe
  • Visitors enjoy the beach at Mukilteo’s Lighthouse Park in January 2011. The beauty of local waters is deceptive; pollution has taken a heavy tol...

    Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

    Visitors enjoy the beach at Mukilteo’s Lighthouse Park in January 2011. The beauty of local waters is deceptive; pollution has taken a heavy toll on Puget Sound.

Our eyes deceive us on beautiful sunny days. Beneath its glittering surface, Puget Sound is sick. In fact, in some places it is dying.
The fact is the entire Puget Sound shoreline from Everett to Tacoma is closed to commercial shellfish harvest because of pollution. Literally hundreds of tons of toxic organic chemicals and metals end up in Puget Sound each year from the cars we drive, the roofs on our houses, wood treatments, wood burning, boat paint, household pesticide use, and other air emissions.
We don't have to look far to see the problem. In fact, just outside my window in Tacoma, the Thea Foss waterway has been one of our biggest cleanup success stories in Puget Sound. But now it is being re-contaminated with pollution from phthalates -- chemicals found in household products like adhesives, detergents, nail polish, hair spray, shampoo, toys and food packaging, among other things. That's right, we paid to clean it up, and now it is being polluted again.
Shellfish beds and swimming beaches are often closed because the water is too contaminated with fecal bacteria. Orcas are the most contaminated mammals on the planet. Salmon populations are 10 percent of historic rates. Many chinook and steelhead don't survive their journey from their natal streams, through the Sound, to the ocean. More and more shorelines are being lined with concrete, which jeopardizes the natural habitat essential for the seafood we eat. One-third of Puget Sound's shorelines have been hardened, and we continue this harmful practice at an average of 1-2 additional miles per year.
That's the bad news. The good news is, we know what to do.
Our region is making progress
Today, hundreds of public, private and tribal partners are working together to make Puget Sound healthy again. Our region is coordinating efforts, creating jobs, prioritizing actions, increasing public education and awareness, and stretching every single public dollar -- local, state or national -- to heal Puget Sound. In 2010 alone, our region has completed 565 projects, supporting nearly 7,476 jobs. By combining efforts and focusing on priorities, more than 2,440 acres of habitat have been protected, 70 miles of streams and rivers have been restored, and game-changing restoration projects have been advanced, such as the 762 acres of estuary restored in Thurston County and the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, which opened up 70 miles of pristine habitat in Clallam County.
In Snohomish County, tribal leaders and farmers are working together and leading the way to improve agricultural productivity and protect habitat for salmon. They are protecting the best farmland and best fish habitat through collaborative land use planning across an entire watershed. All over the Sound, people and organizations are working together and making significant progress.
Sustaining momentum
We have a ways to go to reach our goal of a healthy Puget Sound, and need to sustain our focus and commitment. The decline of the Puget Sound ecosystem has been decades in the making and will require sustained investments and ongoing effort to bring it back to a healthy condition.
That's why the Puget Sound Partnership is updating the region's plan to protect Puget Sound by prioritizing where we need to continue making meaningful progress. There are three related actions that rise to the top of our region's "to do" list:
•Preventing pollution from urban stormwater runoff, which helps us to re-think how we build and live in our cities. To meet our goals, we will need to redouble efforts to keep our roadways and water clean through low-tech actions such as street sweeping and high-tech actions like using new pavement that absorbs stormwater and pollutants.
Protecting critical habitat, which helps us figure out how to create economically sustainable communities that provide services and amenities that people want with density that is friendly to families and to jobs.
Restoring and re-opening shellfish beds, which helps us to reduce runoff from rural and agricultural lands and ensure maintenance and repair of failing septic systems.
The partnership will focus our resources on these initiatives by seeking support from local communities, the governor, Legislature and Congress to help our partners gain funding for Puget Sound restoration, seek changes in policy, report successes, learn from setbacks, and involve each of you in this important community effort.
Economy and quality of life
The Puget Sound region supports $20 billion in annual economic activity and accounts for 3 of 4 jobs in Washington. Puget Sound tastes good, too -- the unique cuisine from our seafood industries is known around the globe, sustaining more than 3,000 direct and indirect jobs and valued at more than $360 million a year. More than 80 percent of the state's tourism dollars are generated in the Puget Sound region, and much of it is connected to marine activities.
That's why cleaning up Puget Sound isn't just a nice idea, it's an economic necessity. The cleaner Puget Sound is, the more fish and shellfish we can grow, and the more people we can employ harvesting, shipping and serving Northwest cuisine in local restaurants and across the globe. A cleaner Puget Sound also means more sales of kayaks, wetsuits, fishing gear and other equipment, and accessories for venturing out onto the water. More sales add up to more jobs. It's as simple as that. We must work together to solve the Sound's problems for the sake of our economy and quality of life.
Each of us is part of the solution
We each have a part to play in saving Puget Sound. Each of us can reduce the amount of fertilizer on our lawns; construct rain gardens in our own yards and local businesses; scoop our pets' poop; keep our cars maintained and not leaking oil; take our cars to a car wash where the water can be treated instead of washing the chemicals that build up on our cars down the storm drain (which in many cities flows into Puget Sound); or volunteer to serve on local boards and planning entities.
Whether you make changes around your home or help educate others that Puget Sound is sick and each of us is part of the solution, your actions multiplied by the 4.5 million people living around the Sound can make a big difference.
The Puget Sound Partnership is a hub of information that connects you with organizations and solutions that work. We'd be glad to help get you connected. This month, I encourage you to take part in local events celebrating Parks Appreciation Day. In May, I hope you'll take part in many of the activities throughout out region celebrating and promoting Puget Sound recovery. The governor has officially designated May as Puget Sound Starts Here Month, and cities and counties will join her. From Puget Sound night at a Mariners game to the Watershed Fun Fair in Edmonds, you can find out what activities are happening in your local area by visiting our website,, and clicking on "events around the Sound."
We need your help to keep the green in our lives -- both in the environment and in our pockets, from the jobs that rely on a healthy Puget Sound. We can and we must continue working together to heal Puget Sound, and keep it healthy for generations to come.
About the author
Gerry O'Keefe is executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership (, a state agency that brings citizens, governments, tribes, scientists and businesses together to work on restoring and protecting Puget Sound.
Story tags » ConservationNatural resourcesNaturePollutionSalmonWildlife HabitatPuget Sound

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