Last month at the grand opening of Tacoma's new Urban Waters building, David Dicks had a tough act to follow.
His larger-than-life father – U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks – preceded him at the microphone, where he was voluble and bombastic as usual.
When it was David’s turn, he did his best to measure up.
“We’ve finally moved to the adult table,” he told the crowd of environmentalists and civic leaders. “We’re finally getting our share of the white meat.”
What David Dicks was saying was that – thanks to hundreds of millions in federal funds – the effort to clean up Puget Sound has moved into the fiscal big leagues with famously polluted places like Chesapeake Bay and the Everglades.
But with his father looming big as a bear just a few feet away, it was hard not to hear the words as personal history as well. Just eight years after he graduated from law school, Dicks was catapulted from his Seattle environmental law firm to the adult table of Washington politics.
In 2007, Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed him executive director of the brand new Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency assigned the task of restoring the health of Puget Sound by 2020.
In exchange for his $125,000 salary, Dicks would manage a staff of about three dozen people at the Urban Waters building headquarters on the Foss Waterway.
Dicks and the Partnership would have no enforcement authority but were to lead the cleanup effort through persuasion and diplomacy – backed by science.
Since then, there’s been plenty of white meat. Despite the recession, cleanup money has been pouring in as never before. Since 2008, nearly $500 million in state and federal dollars have been set aside for more than 600 Puget Sound projects in all of the 12 counties surrounding the Sound.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency increased its funding through the National Estuary Program, to $20 million last year from $500,000 in 2006. This year it will spend $50 million. Puget Sound projects received $158 million in federal economic stimulus grants.
The Partnership’s job, Dicks said, was to come up with a unified plan for restoring the Sound and then to review cleanup projects and policies and work with federal, state and local agencies to see that funds are focused on the projects that will do the most good.
The Partnership’s innovative structure – a collaborative approach based on science and performance – is being looked at nationally as a model for large-scale ecosystem restoration. Most of those who work closely with the Partnership support the concept, if not all of the particulars.
“It’s still a young agency, and certainly they’re going through some growing pains along the way,” said Allison Butcher, a representative of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, “but they’ve actually been very successful on a number of fronts, especially in bringing together and keeping together diverse stakeholders.”
For David Dicks, the move to the big table also has meant taking some adult-size spankings.
The Partnership was reprimanded in a state audit that covered the first two years of its formation, when, through ignorance and expediency, it violated state contracting and purchasing requirements.
The offenses were relatively minor. One involved spending $3,650 for 5,000 tubes of lip balm, to be used as promotional tools, without getting competitive bids.
The most serious involved structuring a $19,999 contract with the K&L Gates law firm, one dollar below the state threshold that triggers competitive bidding. The contract with the firm eventually grew to $51,498.
The total spending criticized by the auditor amounted to about $100,000, but the errors were nonetheless embarrassing and damaged the new agency’s credibility.
Earlier this month, at an accountability forum on the state’s natural resources programs, Gregoire grilled Dicks like a misbehaving child for a presentation she considered too general and off target. She wanted clear evidence that the Partnership was accomplishing its mission.
“I want data,” the governor said. “I want to be able to see that we are actually accomplishing what we set out to do, and I need it in a time of severe budget cutting so I can show to the legislature candidly that we are doing our job.”
The governor was not saying she thinks Dicks and the Partnership were not doing a good job. The Partnership was Gregoire’s creation, and she made it clear she needs tools to use in its defense in upcoming budget negotiations.
“We cannot fail at this,” Gregoire said. “Puget Sound is too important, and the Partnership is making good progress.”
The Partnership’s operating budget for the 2009-11 biennium is $14.5 million, half from federal funds and half from the state. The agency is requesting the same amount for the 2011-13 biennium.
A low level of grumbling has accompanied the Partnership since it began. As the state budget crisis worsens, the volume is rising. The smell of blood from the auditor’s report brought the circling sharks closer, including a few that have been gunning for the Partnership since its inception.
Some environmental organizations complain the Partnership is too timid and slow. A few industry groups and cash-strapped local governments complain it’s moving too fast or that it’s not needed at all. Others have complained that politics have trumped science in some decisions, about lack of transparency and poor communication.
“I think it’s a bad idea,” said Jodi Slavik, general counsel for the Building Industry Association of Washington, a construction trade group. “The Partnership is a classic government feel-good idea: Get a bunch of notables around the table and come up with new regulations. Years later, where are we?”
In spite of such criticism, the coalition has held.
“I look at the Partnership as a 3-year-old. It’s just now turning the corner on its formation,” said David Peeler, a former water quality manager with the state Department of Ecology who now is program director for the environmental group People for Puget Sound.
“Everybody makes mistakes from time to time,” Peeler said. “The important point is to acknowledge them, learn from them and move on. Our whole contention is, we really want them to succeed. We don’t want them to fail. This is our last, best chance to save Puget Sound.”
MODEST AND LIKABLE
Occasionally the criticism has been directed at Dicks personally, often accompanied by doubts about his qualifications to run a high-profile state office. The implicit question: “If he weren’t Norm’s son, would he have the job?”
Dicks, who turned 39 this year, graduated from Stanford University with honors and studied environmental public policy and law at the University of California.
As an environmental attorney at Seattle’s Cascadia Law Group from 2002 to 2007, he specialized in water quality and natural resource issues and worked with former EPA head Bill Ruckelshaus and tribal leader Billy Frank on a commission appointed by Gregoire to create the intellectual underpinnings of the Partnership.
Dicks is a modest, likable guy, associates say.
His strengths, say those who work with him, are his knowledge of environmental law, coalition building, his ability to forcefully present the case for Puget Sound, and fundraising, in which regard his connection to one of the most influential members of Congress and the second-ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee obviously has not hurt.
As for shortcomings, associates say he’s better at dealing with the large picture rather than details.
“I have no illusions that I’m a micro-manager and, frankly, I have no interest in being one,” Dicks said recently at his office in the Urban Waters building. “What I hope I’m good at is creating broad coalitions. This is the art of making people like you wanting to be on your team.”
‘LOSING THE WAR’
Even the Partnership’s harshest critics don’t dispute that Puget Sound needs fixing.
Scientists regard it as a system so overwhelmed by development it is near collapse. Two-thirds of the Sound’s wetlands and estuaries have been destroyed by development; 21 species are listed as threatened or endangered.
Gregoire said she and Norm Dicks came up with the concept for the Partnership during a lunch meeting on Hood Canal in March 2005.
“We said, ‘We’re losing the war,’” the governor recalled, “and we agreed we could not let that happen.”
With Ruckelshaus’ help, the concept that eventually emerged was to coordinate cleanup efforts by creating a single guiding agency to orchestrate the work. It was to use science to establish priorities so funding would be put where it would do the most good, and establish straightforward ways to measure progress.
As Martha Kongsgaard, head of the Partnership’s Leadership Council, put it: The Partnership would change efforts from “random acts of kindness to a focused, prioritized implementation program focused on results.”
The framework of the Partnership was intended to build consensus.
A seven-member leadership council and a 27-member “ecosystem coordination board” are made up of residents, governments, tribes, scientists and business people throughout the Sound. A panel of nine scientists, appointed by the leadership council, oversees research and monitoring.
At the end of 2008, the Partnership assembled its overall game plan for Puget Sound recovery, a document it calls an Action Agenda. This year, it chose 20 indicators that can be monitored to measure progress.
But the science is complex. Research gaps make setting scientifically defensible goals difficult.
“It’s key that it’s based on science, but all of the science pieces are not yet in place.” said Butcher of the Master Builders Association. “It’s still a work in progress.”
For example, one of the Partnership’s indicators concerns the amount of eelgrass in the Sound.
Eelgrass beds generally are acknowledged as essential to the Sound’s ecosystem because they provide cover, food and spawning habitat for a wide range of fish, birds and invertebrates. Progress can be easily monitored by adding up acres.
But how many acres of eelgrass beds are necessary for a healthy Puget Sound? Nobody really knows.
“It’s imperfect because the science is not perfect,” David Dicks said. “It’s complicated stuff.
The Partnership’s successes so far have involved restoration. Tearing out the old agricultural dikes in the Nisqually Delta to restore estuary habitat is one example, as is removing two massive dams on the Olympic Peninsula’s Elwha River.
The Partnership’s biggest test still remains, however. The most difficult problem facing Dicks and the Partnership is reducing the flow of pollutants that continues to pour into the Sound, at a rate estimated at 140,000 pounds of toxins every day.
That’s a problem now caused to a great extent at the individual household level. The issue is failing septic tanks, leaking crankcases, garden pesticides and pet waste, multiplied by millions.
Solving it will require getting people to change their personal behavior and finding a sustainable source of funding to replumb stormwater drainage systems throughout the Puget Sound basin. Both are top priorities for the Partnership and in the end might be the clearest ways to assess its work.
The amount of money allocated for Puget Sound projects each year is one of the indicators that will be used to track the Partnership’s performance, Dicks says, and public opinion surveys will be used to track attitudes and “the adoption of Puget Sound-friendly practices” over time.
Billy Frank, the Nisqually tribal leader nationally known for his efforts to preserve salmon habitat in the Sound, thinks it might work.
Frank, noted for speaking his mind bluntly, wrote a recent essay for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission – which he heads – that was unusual for its positive tone.
“I believe we are on the road to success,” he said. “The milestones are adding up.”
At a recent meeting of the Partnership’s leadership council, Frank said coordination and monitoring of efforts is essential to regain balance.
Earlier that day, Frank said, he had counted 68 sea lions, which are federally protected, devouring imperiled salmon trying to swim up the Nisqually River.
“In my lifetime I’ve only counted six there before,” he said. “Nobody monitors sea lions out there. Nobody monitors anything. That don’t make sense.”
“We’ve got to try to keep this Partnership together,” Frank said. “We have to make sense out of what the hell we’re doing down here.”
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693 firstname.lastname@example.org