Efforts to clean up, restore Puget Sound deserve support

Despite more than 25 years of effort at the federal, state and local level, the cleanup and recovery of Puget Sound remains an elusive goal.

For every success story — think restoration of the Nisqually River estuary — there is more disturbing news. Just last week, the state Department of Ecology reported that the health of marine sediments, measured in part by the number and diversity of sediment-dwelling creatures, has declined over the past 10 years in central Puget Sound.

Other, more iconic Puget Sound species, including orca whales and chinook salmon, also continue to absorb losses or fail to meet recovery goals.

Just as the region starts coming to grips with stormwater controls and new development standards to reduce the volume of stormwater dumping into Puget Sound, new threats associated with climate change have reared their ugly heads. These include ocean acidification, which threatens a state shellfish industry that employs more than 3,200 people and contributes some $270 million a year to the economy.

There are, however, some recent actions at the federal and soundwide levels that could pay dividends for Puget Sound in the years ahead.

Two newly elected members of Congress whose districts encompass Puget Sound — Democrats Denny Heck of Olympia and Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor — last week launched the Congressional Puget Sound Recovery Caucus to promote Puget Sound cleanup efforts.

They are trying to fill the Washington, D.C., political void created when Norm Dicks retired from Congress at the end of the last session. The longtime Sixth District congressman worked tirelessly to secure federal funding for Puget Sound recovery. It’s important that the new Puget Sound caucus keep the pressure on the Obama administration to fund Puget Sound cleanup efforts.

Puget Sound has always played second fiddle to the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay when it comes to federal support. This despite the fact Puget Sound is a national treasure and a major economic driver that supports some 88,000 tourist-related jobs that generate some $3 billion in annual income to the state.

Heck, Kilmer, and their colleagues from Puget Sound congressional districts must work together to ensure that Puget Sound receives the attention and funding it deserves.

The challenge begins immediately. President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget slashes the nearly $30 million annual appropriation for Puget Sound in the past two years by almost $13 million. Meanwhile the Great Lakes funding would remain near the same level and the Chesapeake Bay recovery effort would increase almost $16 million.

On another front, a new citizens group has formed to fight the continued loss of Puget Sound habitat to development. Called Sound Action, the Vashon Island-based group grew out of Preserve Our Islands, which spent a decade defending more than a mile of Maury Island shoreline from development of a gravel mine and industrial barging opeation.

Victorious on Maury Island, the non-profit vows to be a soundwide watchdog group, making sure regulatory agencies follow rules on the books that govern development in the nearshore areas of marine waters where salmon feed and forage fish spawn.

Their primary focus will be the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the agency’s Hydraulic Project Approval (HPA) program, which issues permits for marine nearshore projects. A Sound Action audit of the program released earlier this year found permits weren’t protecting against habitat loss as required by state law.

The Puget Sound Recovery Caucus and Sound Action both have a role to play in the uphill battle to protect and restore Puget Sound. They deserve federal and regional support.