Harsh new climate for Puget Sound Partnership

From the Editorial Board

The health of Puget Sound depends on the work of organizations like Puget Sound Partnership, which may soon see a devastating budget cut.
The health of Puget Sound depends on the work of organizations like Puget Sound Partnership, which may soon see a devastating budget cut. AP

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency provided the Puget Sound region with $28 million for projects exclusively targeted for Puget Sound cleanup, but that flow of funds could soon dry up.

According to the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, the Trump administration has new plans for the Environmental Protection Agency, and most of them involve significant downsizing.

If the administration’s budget receives congressional approval this month, the EPA’s annual budget will be reduced by 24 percent, or about $2 billion per year, and the agency’s staffing will be scaled down by one-fifth, eliminating close to 3,000 jobs.

This walloping budget slash could have serious consequences for our region. Organizations such as Puget Sound Partnership, a coalition of state and local governments and tribes, will see a 93 percent reduction in funds. According to partnership spokeswoman Cathy Cochrane, this budget contraction should have us all concerned.

“The economy and health of the region are inextricably tied,” she said.

Think of the partnership as a guardian of the Sound. Its sole mission is to monitor the ecosystem using science-based technology, similar to the way a good physician looks at a person’s entire health picture. Without funding that enables PSP’s holistic monitoring, things such as salmon-survival and toxic cleanup work would be impacted, which means human populations also could be at risk.

If these cuts go through, the partnership must not only eliminate local jobs that depend on cleanup work, but they would also have to choose which components of their mission to shave. All of them seem integral to the marine food web and general health of the Sound.

President Trump campaigned on claims that EPA regulations imposed on American businesses have killed thousands of jobs. We’re in agreement that cutting unnecessary red tape tied to regulation is important — but investments in the Sound’s recovery have paid off. Habitat loss and storm water pollution have declined, while shellfish and salmon recovery have improved under the watch of the Puget Sound Partnership.

When pollution is the problem, reduction in toxicity is the only solution, and that takes funding. If entities like the Partnership don’t monitor the steady stream of pollutants from boats, marinas, and residential and industrial run-off, who will?

William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, called the cuts “punishing” and believes the Trump administration wants to shift environmental responsibilities away from the federal government and give the job of funding programs like the Puget Sound Partnership back to the states. But when it comes to environmental cleanup and regulations, federal laws are crucial.

Without federal mandates, states might be inclined to make short-sighted economic decisions. In order to keep or woo potential businesses, the temptation to lower environmental standards can creep in.

And even if some states kept virtuous environmental regulations and took full responsibility for funding programs like the Puget Sound Partnership, who would want to live next door to a state that didn’t?

Most of us don’t know much about ocean acidification or how the health of zooplankton affects ecosystems, but it’s safe to say that the 4 million people who live in the Puget Sound region like clean drinking water. We also enjoy knowing our beaches are safe and that poisons such as arsenic or mercury have not made it into the food we eat.

It’s too bad toxic political runoff has made its way into environmental protection. No doubt, propertied interests and lobbyists have played a part in this most recent budget proposal, but breathable air, drinkable water and uncontaminated soil should be something we can all agree on, even in this most contentious climate.