Where is the science in Puget Sound Partnership’s Action agenda?

The Puget Sound Partnership’s Action Agenda, which asks for as much as $200 million in state money, has a worthy purpose but is flawed because of a lack of extensive scientific input, environmental engineer Bob Benze argues. 

By Bob Benze
Special to The Seattle Times
Originally published Friday, December 26, 2008

The Puget Sound Partnership is a new state agency created to “restore” Puget Sound by 2020. On Dec. 1, the Partnership’s Action Agenda was finalized for presentation to the Legislature. An additional $150 million to $200 million in the budget will be required for its implementation.

Restoration of Puget Sound was to be based on science. Unfortunately, many of the Agenda’s actions lack scientific or historical credibility.

For example: The Agenda laments that 66 to 84 percent of the old-growth forest in the basin was removed in the past 50 years. But 100 years ago there was almost no old growth in the basin — the lumber industry had cut it down. Forester Don Flora states: “Prior to European colonization only about 40 percent of the Puget Sound Lowlands were dense, old-growth coniferous forests. Burns accounted for the sparseness. And the prairie actually predated all else, part of the oak-grass savannah that remains in many places, our most native upland ecotype.”

The scientific knowledge of docks, bulkheads, sediment quality, the cause and effect of pollutants, the functions of sewage-treatment plants and septic systems are all misrepresented. The Legislature, however, is unlikely to question the validity of the Agenda, and soon we will be saddled with expensive new regulations.

The Action Agenda was supposed to be driven by a risk analysis conducted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But there was no time to finish it.

The document was actually prepared by the politically driven Ecosystem Coordination Board chaired by King County Executive Ron Sims and populated largely by elected officials and government administrators. Environmental activist organizations were prominently represented. The result is a hodgepodge of uncoordinated actions.

Scientists know there is a lot more we need to know about the Sound before recommending significant actions. But the Partnership’s Science Panel was largely uninvolved in formulating the Agenda. This comes as no surprise. The scientific community is treated like an unloved stepchild, having been allocated only 1.6 percent of the $570 million budgeted biennially for protecting the Sound.

Efforts to manage complex systems like Puget Sound have historically failed. Yellowstone National Park is an example. One reason is that the applied science was out of date. But another is that our environmental decision-making tends to rely on intellectual beliefs and conventional wisdom that lacks scientific foundation or historical knowledge.

One belief is that we can obtain a “balance of nature” by removing human impacts — but the environment changes even when it is left alone. The Puget Sound basin was underneath a mile or more of ice as late as 11,000 yeas ago.

Nevertheless, the Legislature’s goal is to achieve “A healthy human population supported by a healthy Puget Sound that is not threatened by changes in the ecosystem.”

Let’s revisit how a similar approach has worked for Chesapeake Bay. Twenty-five years of efforts and hundreds of millions of dollars spent to restore the Bay have resulted in little progress, with continually missed deadlines. This year, the Chesapeake Bay suffered the fourth-worst “dead zone” since 1985. The Bay’s crab population is near historic lows. The goal of removing the bay from the federal “dirty waters” list by 2010 will not be achieved. Officials are proposing a 12-year extension.

Puget Sound will fare no better. Years later we will be wondering how we could have spent so much money and achieved so little progress. Fourteen prominent Northwest scientists stated in a letter to the Partnership: “Our prediction is that the proposed Action Agenda, if adopted as is, will not halt nor even slow the decline in the health of the Puget Sound ecosystem by 2020.”

There are scientists who understand the work that will actually be required to interact with and benefit the complex system that is Puget Sound. They should be chartered and funded to begin this enterprise.

As a first step, legislation should be enacted to require a sign-off by the newly appointed Washington State Academy of Sciences before any new environmental-protection legislation can be finalized that will impose new taxes, fees, other financial burden on the taxpaying public, or further limit their constitutional property rights. This simple check would result in a far better, more scientifically managed effort to restore Puget Sound.

Bob Benze of Silverdale is an environmental engineer who has spent more than two decades advocating the use of leading-edge science to protect the marine environment.

(c) 2008 The Seattle Times Company. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2008562626_opin28benze.html

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