Puget Sound, a gem at risk

On a geologic time scale, Puget Sound is an infant. The Northwest’s inland sea was carved by the receding Vashon glacier 15,000 years ago. But the illusion of youth is simply that — an illusion.

Nearly 800 miles of amputating bulkheads wall off fish and wildlife habitat. That’s one-quarter of the Puget Sound shoreline. Habitat loss and other factors have whacked Chinook salmon populations, with recreational fishing days cut by 75 percent.

The economic fallout is massive. More than 70 percent of all Washington jobs (and that includes jobs east of the mountains) rely on a clean Puget Sound basin. The question is how to address problems in a science-based, must-be-measured fashion.

For advocates of restoring Puget Sound, there has been no galvanizing horror, such as choking seal pups or seawater that abruptly catches fire, like Ohio’s Cuyahoga River did in 1969. The sound is still a shining, sublime wonder.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget is a promising step forward, emphasizing unsexy infrastructural have-to’s. Think shoreline barriers and rivers of stormwater that gunk up the sound.

Inslee budgets $8.7 million to address urban run off and to manage stormwater from state highways. There is $80 million set aside for the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund to remove dikes and levees, replant stream banks and remove other barriers to fish migration.

There is also small stuff that collectively adds up to big stuff. There is $1.9 million for a statewide, low-impact development program. There is $188,000 to implement the “better brakes” law, which bans friction materials in brake pads that end up in stormwater.

Most of Inslee’s recommendations dovetail with the priorities of the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency responsible for the Sound’s recovery. The partnership has become a lean, efficient bird-dog of state funds, ensuring oversight and accountability. Coordinating and leveraging federal dollars also falls on the partnership, as well as developing indicators of a healthy Sound consistent with its 2020 restoration goals. The partnership no longer gets scapegoated as too top-heavy or PR oriented, with an evolving bipartisan consensus. The reason centers on tangible results such as restoring shellfish beds previously off-limits because of contamination.

On Monday, Inslee signed his climate-action bill. The bill is a well-intentioned effort to tackle climate change, and it begins with a task force. That’s OK, but here’s betting the task force won’t advance proposals that haven’t already been floated. Better to leapfrog all the chin scratching. With climate change, as with Puget Sound recovery, deeds, not words.

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