'People need to get passionate about Puget Sound's cleanup,' Gregoire says

The state spent nearly $572 million on projects during the past two years to clean up and protect Puget Sound.

Add in local government, federal government and private sector funding and the two-year figure could easily top $1 billion.

And while that might sound like a staggering amount of money, this rate of spending might not be enough to reach Gov. Chris Gregoire's goal of a healthy Puget Sound by 2020.

The Puget Sound Partnership, the 17-member group of regional leaders Gregoire has pulled together to work on Puget Sound issues, said in its preliminary report last month that more money is needed for the cleanup.

But first things first.

In a recent interview with The Olympian, Gregoire said she is hesitant to ask the public for more money for Puget Sound until residents are:

• Convinced Puget Sound is in dire straits and needs major help.

• Assured the money for Puget Sound will be well spent and get results.

"Until the public accepts we have a problem, we won't get everyone paying their fair share," she said. "People need to get passionate about Puget Sound cleanup. It's a huge challenge."

"There will be no new sources of money until the taxpayers are satisfied about how the money we already have is spent," said state Department of Ecology Director Jay Manning, who co-chairs the partnership. "We still need to answer some questions about what we're spending now."

In a report due to the governor in November, the partnership hopes to have some rough ideas of what it will cost to tackle some of the big ticket items over the next 15 years, including stormwater controls, replacing and upgrading wastewater treatment plants, salmon recovery, nearshore habitat restoration and toxics cleanup, said Jim Cahill, a senior budget analyst for natural resources at the state Office of Financial Management.

Puget Sound salmon recovery alone is pegged at $1.6 billion over the next 10 years, noted Jim Kramer, a partnership project manager.

"It will probably be billions and billions of dollars," Cahill said of the cleanup and protection costs ahead.

It remains to be seen whether there's public and political support for some new tax dedicated to Puget Sound.

One idea being tossed around is a so-called flush tax, which would require sewer customers and septic system owners in the Puget Sound basin to pay a surcharge each month that would go toward financing Puget Sound projects.

Maryland has a flush tax for water quality projects that amounts to $2.50 a month. When asked whether they are willing to pay more for Puget Sound cleanup, the majority of The Olympian readers who responded said "yes."

"I would be willing to pay my fair share to support restoration through taxes and fees," said Rob Penney, a South Sound resident who enjoys canoeing, kayaking and sailing on the Sound.

"When most people spend $3-$4 on a latte and $1.25 for Coke, or $1.50 for a bottle of water, it is ridiculous to think we can't afford to clean up Puget Sound," said James Boone, who lives in the Henderson Inlet watershed.

Others were just as strong in their opposition to new taxes.

"No, I am not willing to pay more taxes!" said Tootie Crowson of Olympia. "Why is that always the Democratic solution to every perceived problem?"

About 60 percent of the money spent on Puget Sound in the past two years was in the form of grants and loans for wastewater treatment plant improvements.

Protecting and restoring habitat garnered nearly 14 percent of the total, and stormwater projects ate up 11.7 percent.

The partnership has been unable to measure the total contributions from local governments or the private sector, said Cahill, of the state Office of Financial Management.