OLYMPIA – As a 25-gallon aquarium is lowered upside-down onto the bottom of an inlet in Puget Sound, Mindy Roberts watches as two other environmental scientists draw water samples up a long, clear tube.
On this particular day, the Department of Ecology is testing for dissolved oxygen in the water, data that will be used to figure out how human factors such as stormwater runoff negatively impact the levels of oxygen in the water.
Roberts, a project manager at the agency, said the information will help create the equivalent of a flight simulator, a program that would let scientists test out how different things – like a projected population boom – will impact the sound.
“It’s not just studying it for studying’s sake; it’s studying it to understand who’s contributing what,” she said. “Once we do that, we can then do different what-if scenarios.”
Research like this and hundreds of other studies being done by various agencies and local governments are meant to be the answer on how best clean up the troubled waters of Puget Sound. While research has been ongoing for decades, a cohesive, organized plan to reverse the decline of the state’s famous body of water has been more evasive.
Now the Puget Sound Partnership, created by lawmakers this year, hopes to succeed where others have failed.
“We know a lot about the problems in a lot of parts of Puget Sound,” said David Dicks, the executive director of the new agency. “What’s never really happened is somebody standing above it all and rolling that all together.”
The new agency is responsible for determining the current health of the sound, and setting priorities so that the state can meet the goal of a healthy sound by 2020. A preliminary report is due to lawmakers by next September.
The partnership recently named a nine-member independent science panel that will offer advice and will help measure progress.
“What does a healthy Puget Sound by 2020 mean?” Dicks asked. “We’ve got to define that term in a very meaningful, objective way.”
And more importantly, Dicks said, is how to translate that to a public that hears there’s something wrong with the sound, but doesn’t necessarily believe it.
Recent surveys of residents show that most believe the sound is in good health. A public affairs firm last year found that more than 70 percent of those polled thought the environmental health of Puget Sound was excellent or pretty good, and even after learning about issues facing the sound, nearly 60 percent thought the same. Another survey done by pollster Stuart Elway found that more than 50 percent thought the sound was healthy.
For Roberts, of the Department of Ecology, that rosy picture people have is the biggest problem.
“If there were fish floating upside down, you have a very acute problem. People are willing to do something about it,” she said. “The hard part is, you want to avoid fish floating upside down. Getting people’s attention, that’s the key for us in this aesthetically beautiful area. It’s really hard.”
Attempts to fix the sound are nothing new. In 1985, the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority was formed. It was disbanded and replaced by the Puget Sound Action Team in 1996. The Puget Sound Partnership was created this year.
Josh Baldi, special assistant to Department of Ecology head Jay Manning, said that several things are different this time around.
He noted that the agency has greater authority than the prior groups did, and over more groups, including federal, tribal and local governments. While it has no regulatory authority, it has the power to hold the various groups accountable to their work by directing who gets money, he said.
But most important, Baldi said, is the 2020 deadline.
“That’s fundamentally changed the way we’re discussing restoration and protection,” he said. “When there’s no deadline, it’s easy to just be unended. Just because you say it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. But because the governor has put it out there, it has changed the debate.”
Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said he thought the goals of the group were good, “but I’m a little concerned that we’re creating a whole new bureaucracy on top of several others that haven’t done a very good job.”
Kretz voted against the bill creating the partnership, in part, because he said he’s worried that it “will become a cumbersome new bureaucracy that won’t function so well.”
“I’m really concerned that it’s going to be more of the same mentality: The more money we throw at it, the better it must be,” he said. “I’d like to see these things measured in results, rather than money spent.”
Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed Dicks to become executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership in August. Dicks’ father is U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who has long advocated for Puget Sound and Hood Canal and now is a key congressional budget chairman.
But Dicks said that even having friends in D.C. doesn’t translate to endless money from the federal government.
“If we don’t have a credible, scientifically based plan that everybody believes in and buys off on, we have no chance with the federal government,” he said.
Kathy Fletcher, who led the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority back in the 1980s and is now executive director of People for Puget Sound, said that success will be measured by a change of thinking on development, enforcing water quality permits and turning down projects that may be harmful to the sound.
“It’s not just money and ribbon-cutting for projects,” she said. “It’s actually getting tough and making changes that are controversial. There is no way, with our growing population, that we’re going to save Puget Sound if we don’t take a dramatically different approach.”