Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Puget Sound Partnership looks in mirror, not pleased

by October 15th, 2012

State audits have critiqued the Puget Sound Partnership for lax management, and a federal watchdog group tied it to alleged ethical missteps by a powerful Washington Congressman. But in a newly-released bi-annual “State of the Sound” assessment, the organization appears to giving itself a bracing dose of “tough love.” A summary memo on the new report from the state agency spearheading efforts to restore the health of Puget Sound says that on six key indicators of success, progress toward 2020 goals isn’t occurring. Progress is mixed on another five, evident on two, and unclear on another eight because goals haven’t been set or data isn’t yet available. The trouble spots are marine water quality, cleanliness of swimming beaches, growth of eelgrass, and stock of Chinook salmon, herring and Orca whales. The memo was released quietly and online late last week by the Partnership’s Ecosystem Coordination board as part of a document packet for its October 18 meeting in Shelton, Mason County. The full report was to be posted online later today at the partnership’s web site.

Admittedly, responsibilities for shepherding the region’s signature and scenic marine resource are diffuse; it touches 11 different western Washington counties and is the bailiwick as well of local and tribal governments, Washington state, the U.S., non-profits and private landowners. The Partnership, which currently lists 46 staffers on its roster, makes clear its role is not to meet the challenge entirely on its own but to inspire and oversee a more effective collaboration at a time of scare financial resources, overlapping bureaucracies and continued population pressure.

Scant signs of Orca, Chinook, and herring recovery
There’s a lot still to do. According to the 2012 State of the Sound draft summary memo authored by the Partnership’s Program Director of Performance Management Alana Knaster, marine water quality in Puget Sound “shows a recent declining trend,” and the proportion of swimming beaches on the Sound meeting cleanliness standards last year was lower than in 2007. Eelgrass, which fosters marine habitats, hadn’t increased as of last year, compared to 2000-2008. As well, there was “no significant increase” of spawning herring, plus a decline in Chinook salmon between 2006 and 2010 with no real recovery yet, and fewer Orca whales in August of this year than in 2010.

Most other indicators “mixed” or lacking sufficient data; two positives
Looking at other indicators, outcomes were classified as “mixed” for quality of marine sediment and freshwater, and for summer stream flows, toxics in fish, and the proliferation and environmental compliance of onsite sewage systems. The memo also says there’s not enough information yet on eight more Puget Sound indices, including robustness and diversity of bird population, harvest levels of commercial fisheries, and recreational fishing license sales. There has been notable progress on restoring shellfish beds and habitats of estuaries, or the different areas where 16 rivers flow into and mix with the Sound.

Many management challenges face the Partnership
There are a number of barriers to achieving the partnership’s Action Agenda, the State of the Sound memo says. Lack of funding and a solid funding strategy is one. The Partnership says it is $370 million shy of what’s needed to pay for near-term actions over the next three years, not including additional funding gaps in key ongoing government programs such as controlling flows of potentially polluting storm water into the Sound. Local, tribal, state and federal governments need to maximize their potentially to secure funds to improve the Sound’s health, as do non-profits, businesses and private landowners, the memo states.

Other challenges include data gaps, lack of performance measures and “recovery science” knowledge, as well as inattention to local implementation and a broader outreach strategy. The memo also says that the wide array of existing programs across different jurisdictions that may affect or help Puget Sound are poorly understood, so the Partnership “is not able to evaluate the benefits of shifting funding from existing programs to new programs or initiatives.” Perhaps the biggest barrier to restoring the quality of Puget Sound, says the memo, are government budget, economic and social repercussions of the dramatic changes likely required in development and transportation choices of the region.

The low tide begins to rise on Puget Sound, at Alki Beach, West Seattle/Matt Rosenberg

Messy history
The Puget Sound Partnership was formed in 2007. The Partnership’s Executive Director David Dicks was appointed to his post by Washington governor Chris Gregoire after his father – Washington Congressman Norm Dicks (D-6), then the chairman of a key House Appropriations subcommittee – began to successfully seek tens of million of dollars more in federal money for the regional agency and other Puget Sound restoration work, the Washington Post reported in February of this year. That included $14 million in non-competitive grants to the Partnership, the Post reported.

The younger Dicks resigned days after Republicans took control of the House in November, 2010. By then the Partnership had also been the focus of a critical report about its poor management and accountability, issued by the office of Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag, with another, from the state’s Joint Legislative Audit Review Committee, underway. In March of this year, Dicks senior announced he would not seek re-election. In September, he earned a “dishonorable mention” and a special section in the annual “Most Corrupt Members of Congress” report by the non-profit, non-partisan watchdog group, Citizens for Reform and Ethics in Washington. Both Congressman Dicks and David Dicks have emphasized they believe there was nothing improper about the federal funds directed to the agency.

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One Response to “Puget Sound Partnership looks in mirror, not pleased”

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