By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Puget Sound’s boundless beauty might be its ultimate undoing.
But it’s not too far gone – yet.
That was the message heard by and shared among more than 100 people during a recent boat tour that used the Sound’s beauty as a backdrop for a message that grows increasingly urgent: Restore more of its nearshore.
That’s the part you might not even think twice about as you gaze at the spectacle of the water, sapphire under sunshine, silver under showers.
We hear a lot about the water itself – pollution we can reduce, like combined-sewer overflows and toxic runoff. But what’s next to the water matters too. The beach, or what’s replaced it; the bluffs; those comprise the nearshore. So does what’s on the beach, the rocks, the bluffs … NOAA Fisheries Service explains it, plainly, here.
Another term that mattered on the tour: WRIA 9 – a zone you’re in, but might not ever have heard mentioned.
WRIA stands for Water Resource Inventory Area. Zone 9 is the Duwamish-Green Watershed … as in, the Duwamish-Green River, which runs south from West Seattle.
With that area of focus, those who were aboard (listed here) included elected officials from South King County as well as representatives from advocacy groups, businesses, and government agencies.
“If you look beneath the surface, if it was a patient in a hospital, it’d be in serious condition.”
In the big picture, Manning said, what is happening in our area is “an experiment,” an attempt to have millions of people living in a watershed, “and the greatest estuary in the world,” while maintaining a “healthy, thriving ecosystem.” Similar “experiments” are ongoing around the world, though ours, in his view, has the most hope of succeeding, “but it is very, very challenging.” Awareness is a huge challenge: “98 percent of the populace is not aware there’s a problem. How do we get them really focused, really working on this?”
The exponential growth of that populace is a challenge: “If we think we can continue to add another million people every 20 years and have no impact on Puget Sound, we’re deluding ourselves.” He acknowledged he had no suggestion for how to address that but “we have to start dealing with it.”
Another challenge: “a regulatory system … full of holes that need to be plugged if we’re really going to protect and restore Puget Sound.” And back to the topic of the trip, the nearshore habitat: “A lot of it, as you look at those big bulkheads, has been lost.” (The boat was passing east Alki at the time; you can explore the area in a from-the-water view via new additions to Google Maps.)
Climate change, he acknowledged, could eventually “undo what we do,” but that’s no excuse for inaction – if anything, Manning said, it’s a reason to accelerate.
Following Manning’s keynote, the West Seattleite who chairs the PSP Leadership Council, Martha Kongsgaard, was part of a panel moderated by Seattle Times environmental journalist Lynda Mapes, also including Holly Coccoli of the Muckleshoot Tribe, Debra Guenther of the architecture firm Mithun, Kollin Higgins from King County Water and Land Resources, and Curtis Tanner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Tanner again emphasized the lack of remaining natural habitat along Puget Sound’s urban shore, directing attention to Alki Point Lighthouse, as an example, while the boat passed.
“There’s no upper beach left, no place for surf smelt and other (salmon food) to spawn on that beach. … What happens here affects all your fish, no matter where you are on Puget Sound. Every chinook (salmon) stock comes down here and starts mixing – it’s the ultimate melting pot. … Our habitat is their habitat.”
Mapes observed that the difference can be observed if you walk from Discovery Park to downtown at low tide – it begins with soft sand, and then come the (residential) bulkheads, with the beach “no longer being nourished by the bluffs.”
The loss of salt marshes also contributes, said Coccoli, as do “very, very high temperatures” in the Lower Green River, where “a lot of pre-spawning mortality (has been seen) in recent years.”
The Muckleshoots, she said, have not had a salmon harvest in the Green River for years and the tribe is “really working hard to make sure we have salmon in the future.”
Salmon recovery, observed Kongsgaard, “is people-centric … people always have flocked to the nearshore, where the food is, where the transportation is, where the view is.”
She gestured toward the vicinity of her own neighborhood, as the boat passed West Seattle’s west-facing shore. “All the things we do are decisions, just decisions, it’s not more complicated than that. We are learning (now) that we have to mimic nature; we do a poor job of dealing with what she gives us for free.”
New ways to develop are needed, agreed Tanner, as we build more “to accommodate the people who want to join us in this beautiful place.” That means more raingardens and bioswales, house by house, among other features, decisions “that will determine whether we are successful and have heathy fish/shellfish population for future generations.”
Guenther cited the High Point redevelopment as an example of what Tanner mentioned; its features even include pervious pavement.
“City” and “nature” are interdependent, she said, requiring thoughtful design and construction. But even a project like HP, she warned, is “not aggressive enough.” The private sector has to help “create ecology in our communities.” She had praise for SalmonSafe as well as for the city of Seattle-mandated “green factor.”
During Q&A, one tour attendee wondered how to encourage restoration on private property. Kongsgaard suggested an all-out campaign for it, to inspire people, and to tie it into the shared love for our beautiful surroundings.
Another suggestion: Change the laws regarding what can be done if and when a waterfront property owner seeks to replace a bulkhead.
Then a concern from Greg Volkhardt of Tacoma Water: How can “forage food fish” be brought back? Would it take hatcheries? “30 years ago, this place was teeming with forage fish, and they’re not here any more.”
Getting waterfront neighborhoods to band together to restore a section of the nearshore could help, it was suggested. Get them interested in stewardship, another suggested.
That provided the perfect segue to Pat Collier, a Maury Island waterfront property owner who spoke about removing part of a bulkhead because she was concerned about the health of Puget Sound, on which she has lived for half a century, originally on Three Tree Point before moving to Maury, where, she recalled, she saw whales her first Christmas morning there.
The more she learned about the importance of nearshore habitat, the more concerns she had, Collier explained. She spoke of a 2004 report – with authors including tour participant Higgins – that included information on what juvenile salmon were eating. (See the report here.)
The report showed that “terrestrial invertebrates” were a big part of the young salmon’s diet, and since orca need those salmon, that means orca need native plants, which is where those invertebrates thrive – so that’s why your garden/landscaping choices can ultimately affect our beloved whales. (Another speaker later talked briefly about what the uninitiated might just consider pests on the sand – such as beachhoppers and midges – and their value to young salmon.)
That’s when the Sightseer reached the waters off Seahurst Park in Burien, site of a multimillion dollar restoration project.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers‘ district commander Col. John Buck said Seahurst had come to his attention earlier in his career – and then, as one of his first official acts as regional commander, he helped cut the ribbon for the project’s completion.
Part of its goals included restoring “sediment transport and natural beach processes … in a way the public can enjoy.” As described on this infosheet:
The Seahurst Phase 2 project restores and reconnects 1,800 feet of forage fish nearshore habitat by removing the seawall and riprap along the beach. Improved habitat aids recovery of species, such as bull trout, steelhead and Chinook salmon, listed under the Endangered Species Act. Burien’s Seahurst Park provides a significant and unique restoration opportunity in the heart of Puget Sound. The 4,500 feet of shoreline make up the largest public shoreline park between Seattle and Tacoma.
Phase 1, finished in 2005, won an award. “We look at this as a flagship restoration effort,” said Buck.
Seahurst is home to the Environmental Science Center, whose director Tara Luckie spoke next.
She offered hope that people can be taught to understand and care about nearshore habitat, as happens at her center: “Once they have a little bit of education, it’s like a light bulb goes off.” The center has two major programs, she explained: Beach Heroes teaches environmental stewardship and involved more than 2,500 students last year, “many (who) had never been to the beach, despite (being relatively) close – they in turn teach their families.” And then there’s the Salmon Heroes program, with field studies for students in five school districts including Seattle – students dissect salmon, test water quality, and “learn how their actions play a role in the health of Puget Sound.”
Brandy Reed from King Conservation District explained the workshops her organization presents to land owners and other residents. “We have touched 78 percent of the nearshore land owners in King County – every single one has come to a workshop or invited us onto their property” for site-specific technical learning. “People are eager to learn – they want to take action.” Reed said they’ve been building a public/private partnership including cost-sharing. But money is a challenge – “the only thing getting in the way of making (more restoration) happen.”
Heading back toward downtown, the talk turned toward a project at Lowman Beach Park. No, not the combined-sewer-overflow-control facility across the street – this was an update from Seattle Parks’ David Graves on the bulkhead problem at Lowman.
Graves explained that the south half of the beach was restored to natural habitat when a bulkhead failed in the 1990s. And then, the north side started to move after a storm last fall. “It’s pitched forward several feet now,” Graves said, and deciding what to do about it is now “urgent.” He said Parks now has a “grant to look at feasibility and design as to how we might pull it out and create a natural shoreline” – that’s an update from what he told the Fauntleroy Community Association last April.
Shortly thereafter, as the Sightseer continued sailing past West Seattle, local advocate and photographer “Diver Laura” James got the spotlight. She spoke about her new adventures in 360-degree video, as well as the power of showing people what’s under the surface of Puget Sound:
(Crank up the audio … it was a little breezy out there for our iPhone microphone.) Technology has the power to reach so many more people, she noted, and she’s dedicated to exploring and maximizing it.
Then Doug Osterman, from King County’s WRIA 9 team, got down to the heart of the matter:
It’s imperative, he said, to get the state Legislature to recognize and fund the “priorities of this watershed … We have a list of projects ready to go, pending funding.” Here’s that state list (from a document that also includes federal-funding priorities):
Support continued efforts to explore dedicated watershed-based funding authorities to support multiple-benefit projects that address salmon habitat protection and restoration, water quality, stormwater management, and flood management.
Support $80 million for salmon recovery projects under the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Program (PSAR).
Support $50 million for salmon recovery projects under the Salmon Recovery Funding Board (SRFB).
Support $20 million for nearshore restoration projects under the Estuary and Salmon Recovery Program (ESRP).
Support $70 million for floodplain restoration projects under the Floodplains by Design program.
$100 million for the Stormwater Financial Assistance Program (SFAP).
Support State Capital Budget appropriations:
$1,670,991 million for Saltwater State Park estuary and nearshore restoration project.
$9,847,832 million for Lower Russell Road floodplain restoration construction.
$4,835,743 million for Downey Farmstead floodplain restoration construction.
$1.5 million for tree planting/shading of the temperature impaired Green River.
$50 million for acquisition of priority properties along the Duwamish River in areas of high equity and social justice need.
Provide funding for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to implement priority projects based on Department of Ecology (DOE) approved stormwater retrofit analyses.
Continued Osterman: “We’re going to be bold and daring and ask for this money from the state Legislature; we can influence a lot of people who live in this area by doing these really important projects … based on science. Take that to your legislators.”
One of ours was on board:
34th District State House Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, who chairs the Environment Committee, was listening, rather than speaking, during the tour. We asked him later, while finishing this story, for his thoughts on the topic.
Two of the higher-profile programs that we fund in the capital budget are Puget Sound Acquisition and Recovery (PSAR) program and Floodplains by Design. PSAR, for example, was a source of funds for many of the projects that we covered on the boat tour, including the Seahurst Park project.
I will definitely be advocating for investments in these programs at a high level so we can continue making forward progress on Puget Sound recovery. … Our House Capital Budget Chair, Rep. Steve Tharinger from Sequim, is a big advocate for Puget Sound recovery.
Policy-level changes that help with Puget Sound recovery are moving forward on separate tracks. One example is the recently-updated municipal stormwater permit, which essentially is a set of requirements for all new development projects to make sure they handle as much of their stormwater on-site as possible. Seattle and Tacoma are “Phase 1” cities meaning they will have the strongest stormwater protections, while “Phase 2” jurisdictions including Burien will still have very strong protections but not quite as stringent or as soon as Phase 1. However, this only deals with new development and does not help us address existing developments that don’t adequately manage stormwater on-site, and big new investments will be necessary for that.
The ongoing EPA-mandated work to address combined sewer overflows will help as well – you have covered this extensively in regards to the Barton St and Lowman Beach projects – while combined sewer overflows are not a very large contributor to pollution problems in Puget Sound, they do have severe local effects when an event occurs, and the improvements to the wastewater and stormwater sewers will have a positive effect.
Recent updates to shoreline master programs in Seattle and other shoreline jurisdictions as well as updates to the state’s rules governing in-water construction projects (hydraulic permit approvals) will also help on the development side.
I am not planning on introducing a specific bill because so many efforts to improve Puget Sound’s water quality are advancing on the administrative side. However, I am always looking for ways to do better with state law, and many of these will be fending off attacks on our existing laws, as I did in my first session (2011) on the aforementioned stormwater permit. My committee does have jurisdiction over many of the issues we covered, including the state’s management of state-owned aquatic lands and the Shoreline Management Act.
We will do our best to keep an eye on this type of legislation once the next session in Olympia gets under way. Meantime, one final word about the tour itself …
The concluding speaker, as the Sightseer made its way back to the downtown dock, was former King County Executive Ron Sims.
He remarked most poignantly on grandfatherhood and what the decisions we make, and actions we take, can mean for the youngest among us, before they are the ones in charge.
HOW CAN YOU HELP? Simple actions can make a difference. They’re detailed on this page about the salmon-recovery plan.