Panel issues 13-year plan for restoring Puget Sound

SEATTLE - A panel appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire has finalized its plan for a 13-year across-the-board effort to clean up Puget Sound, with stronger emphasis on storm runoff - a critical issue as rainfall washes toxins off hillside roads and rooftops into the sparkling sound.

Perhaps more than any other issue faced by the region, stormwater runoff exemplifies the clash between environment and economy.

Population growth - an additional 1.4 million people are expected to move to the region by 2020 - means more roads, parking lots and housing developments. That means more hard surfaces - asphalt and concrete - channeling untreated water into the watersheds and the sound.

The final report of the Puget Sound Partnership is being released today by partnership officials and Gregoire, who assigned them the task last year. The Associated Press obtained an advance copy.

Gregoire is also expected to announce proposals for finding billions of dollars to mount the campaign and carry it through 2020.

Puget Sound's problems are well established scientifically, linked to the millions of people who live and work on its shores. Erosion from logging and other resource extraction plus human, agricultural and industrial waste are slowly poisoning the rich ecosystem.

But one of the recovery effort's biggest hurdles is the public impression that Puget Sound is in good or excellent health.

"The difficulty is that Puget Sound is beautiful on a sunny day. We're not seeing what's underneath the water," said U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., one of the partnership's more than two dozen partners. "We're up against a vision."

The report from more than two dozen partners - from the building trades; ports; environmentalists; and city, state, federal and tribal governments - estimates that restoring the health of the sound will take roughly $6 billion in new money at all levels of government through 2020.

That's in addition to the approximately $6 billion expected during that period from ongoing programs affecting the state's 2,458 square miles of inland marine waters and the mountain watersheds that drain into them.

Eighty percent of the sound's estuary habitat is gone, the report says, and at least a third of the shoreline - a vital area for many species including young salmon and the smaller fish they feed on - has been "armored" with riprap, bulkheads or other structures.

Increasing problems

Toxic pollution, some of it decades old and still lethal, and human and animal waste are significant problems. Habitat loss on land and water underscores the need to preserve what is left, and the report encourages stewardship and acquiring land from willing sellers.

"You have to be willing to spend on things that don't provide immediate results," said another partner, state Rep. Fred Jarrett, R-Mercer Island. "You're investing in the future here."

The shift of power in Congress might help, as veteran U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks - also a member of the partnership - takes over as chairman of a key budget subcommittee.

"It's an enormous task with an enormous price tag," said Dicks spokesman George Behan. "If it's a shared task - both in terms of effort and funding - we have a lot better chance of getting where we need to go."

Past efforts

Previous cleanup efforts have bogged down, but the partnership - and the governor - are determined to pioneer a cooperative approach that can restore health to the Sound even as new arrivals threaten by sheer numbers the beauty that draws them here.

"People are coming. We can't build a fence here," said Bill Ruckelshaus, the nation's first Environmental Protection Agency administrator and a co-chairman of the partnership along with Gregoire, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission leader Billy Frank Jr. and state Ecology Director Jay Manning.

The panel's October draft report came under fire from a group of scientists and engineers for its sketchy storm water recommendations, an issue that continued to be contentious as the final report was prepared.

When the partnership proposed a task force to focus on the complexity and importance of dealing with runoff, there was last-minute scuffling over a perceived singling-out of the building industry. The outcome: a task force with a more general focus on water-quality issues.

Storm runoff carries chemicals, oil, garbage and even pharmaceuticals from homes, parking lots and highways into the sound.

"It's the issue most closely linked to land use and population growth," said Kathy Fletcher of People for Puget Sound, the lone environmental activist on the panel. "One thing we need to do to minimize the problem of stormwater is to minimize sprawl, and that's a biggie."

At the individual level, a homeowner could replace an aging driveway with a new material that lets stormwater seep naturally to waterways. "But you ask a contractor about it, a lot of them say, 'We don't do that,' or 'We don't know how to do that.' " Ruckelshaus said.

Technology has helped solve previous environmental problems, Inslee said, and likely can help address runoff, too.

"The way we wash our cars, the way we deal with garden waste, what kind of car we drive, whether we use mass transit - these are all personal decisions that are going to have huge impact on the sound," Inslee said.

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