The headstone of legendary Northwest conservationist Billy Frank Jr. is engraved with an admonition. The words are quintessential Billy, and they are decidedly frank. And they ring even truer today than they did before the Nisqually Tribe leader died two years ago.
“We are at a crossroads and we are running out of time.”
A zealous advocate for Northwest salmon runs, Frank viewed their decline as a harbinger of the death of the Puget Sound ecosystem as a whole. The Sound shelters more than 200 fish species, in addition to scores of seabirds and marine mammals, and it ranks among the two largest estuaries in the U.S. (Chesapeake Bay is larger by landmass and shoreline, but Puget Sound is larger by volume because it plunges to depths of 930 feet.)
New warning signs about the failing health of the Sound and its 19 river basins arrive all too often, such as this year’s abysmal return of wild and hatchery-bred coho salmon. The low return has precipitated a virtual lockdown of the commercial and recreational fishing seasons and a disappointing impasse between the state and tribes over how to manage the dwindling resource.
Add to that the recent addition of the Green River, from which Tacoma draws its drinking water, to a prominent national list of endangered rivers. Throw in high levels of prescription drugs that scientists have found in the tissues of fish swimming in Tacoma’s Blair Waterway and other parts of the estuary.
None of it bodes well for preserving Puget Sound as a sustaining force for wildlife, nor for the people within its footprint who comprise two-thirds of Washington’s population.
This Earth Day weekend is a logical moment to issue a renewed call for action. One symbolic step would be for Congress to adopt the Puget SOS Act, sponsored by South Sound Democratic lawmakers Denny Heck and Derek Kilmer, plus all eight other Washington representatives. The bipartisan bill is under consideration by a House committee.
SOS would coordinate the various recovery plans under way at the federal, state, local and tribal levels – a sometimes tricky task, as the recent coho fisheries disagreement shows. Most critically, though, the bill would amend the federal Clean Water Act to put Puget Sound on par with Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes as a nationally significant body of water.
This would help address an unfortunate syndrome known, in sports terminology, as East Coast bias.
If Congress won’t budge, one alternative would be for President Obama to sign an executive order requiring action to protect Puget Sound, as he did for the Chesapeake in 2009. Heck says he’s broached the idea with the president.
Heck, for his part, admits that when he first saw Billy Frank Jr.’s headstone, he was put off by the fatalism of the Indian leader’s words. “But the more I get into the science, the more I realize he was right,” the congressman told the News Tribune editorial board this month.
The factors causing time to run out on the Puget Sound are wide-ranging. Known offenders include population growth, stormwater and agriculture runoff, logging, oil spills, leaking septic tanks, and flood-control measures dating back decades.
Research continues on other less-understood contributors, such as climate change and ocean acidification. New studies sound alarm bells all the time, such as work published last year by the University of Washington Tacoma and the Center for Urban Waters. It found high levels of microplastics in the Sound (more than in Chesapeake Bay), with the largest concentration in Tacoma’s Thea Foss Waterway.
The Puget Sound Partnership has been picking away at the problems since the Legislature created the state coordinating agency in 2007. Its mission is to revive the Sound’s vital signs by 2020 – a goal that seems less plausible with each passing year.
Several of the partnership’s action items for 2016 revolve around the menace of stormwater. Our region’s heavy rainfall scours vehicles, rooftops and parking lots, discharging a brew of toxins, nutrients and bacteria down storm drains into the Sound. The agency partners are appropriately stepping up their research, water sampling, source inspections and education campaigns.
Kilmer and Heck this year introduced another sensible bill that would open more federal funds to help local governments install Green Stormwater Infrastructure.
“Our legislation supports the groundbreaking work being done in places like Tacoma to capture more of these pollutants and clean up our waters,” Kilmer said in a February statement.
The public can help with small steps such as limiting car washes and yard chemical use, and picking up dog waste on beach walks.
Together, Washington residents will have to make sacrifices to save the Puget Sound. It’s the only way our children and grandchildren will inherit the legacy that Billy Frank Jr. warned is slipping away.