By Jeff Rice, Puget Sound Institute
Ten years ago, then-governor Christine Gregoire set an ambitious goal to clean up Puget Sound by 2020. The talk of that time is still familiar. Puget Sound was in trouble then as it is now. Our resident orcas had diminished to dangerously low numbers and contaminants like PCBs and stormwater were well-known threats to the ecosystem.
Now, with 2020 less than three years away, we are learning that Puget Sound faces even more extensive problems than Governor Gregoire may have imagined. Ocean acidification was just a blip on the radar in 2007. New climate change studies show a suite of increasing threats, from higher than expected sea-level rise to low creek flows for salmon. Population growth in the region has since accelerated to an astonishing 1000 new residents per week.
Talk has started to change from “cleanup” to “resilience.” The state’s Puget Sound Partnership, designated by Governor Gregoire to lead the cleanup efforts, now says “many 2020 recovery targets will not be met,” and the Puget Sound Leadership Council says it’s time for “an honest, clear-eyed review of where we are and where we are headed.”
The Partnership’s 2017 State of the Sound report released last week outlines the latest progress on the state’s designated indicators of Puget Sound health, or “Vital Signs.” Targets for shoreline armoring, shellfish beds and floodplains have seen mild improvement, but are not expected to meet 2020 goals. Stormwater results are “mixed” while key indicators like orca and Chinook populations have lost ground, as have Pacific herring and marine birds like the marbled murrelet.
That’s the bad news, but the report also points to important progress. After ten years, managers and scientists know a great deal more about what we are up against. New implementation strategies are being designed to take what has been learned and apply it. There is renewed urgency on some fronts such as Chinook and orca recovery, with expected announcements from Governor Jay Inslee and acceptance of a series of “bold actions” proposed by area tribes. There is also a healthy acknowledgement that a recovery project of this scale takes time.
The Puget Sound region is as large or larger than some small states. It is twice the size of Connecticut and includes thousands of species and about 2500 miles of winding shoreline. The 13-year timeframe proposed by Governor Gregoire was often seen as aspirational and according to the report is shorter than timelines for other ecosystem recovery efforts of similar scale.* The report puts Chesapeake Bay’s coordinated efforts at 42 years and counting, and San Francisco Bay’s at 35 years.
*[Blog update 11/9/17: Founder and former Executive Director of the group People for Puget Sound Kathy Fletcher offers a different perspective, writing in a blog for Salish Sea Communications that “the  goal was set more than 30 years ago by Washington State, in 1985 legislation that created the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority.” It is a fair point that Puget Sound recovery efforts have extended well beyond the past 10 years. Much of the language of 1985 and prior is echoed in the language of today, and you can see some of the origin and evolution of the state’s thinking in our collection of archived reports available in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.]
That doesn’t mean we should take the foot off the gas, say state leaders. “Course corrections must be identified and implemented soon to get Puget Sound on an acceptable recovery trajectory,” the Leadership Council writes. Given the current rate of habitat destruction and the growing threat of extinction for some species like Puget Sound’s resident orcas, there is an acknowledgement that managers don’t have the luxury of taking their time. The 2020 goal may have been aspirational, but the situation is no less urgent.