Op-Ed

We’re making Sound progress, but much yet to do

Photo taken in September 2014 shows a baby orca swimming between two adults near Seattle. It apparently died while its pod was in the open ocean off Washington or British Columbia. It has not been seen since the L pod returned in recent days to the inland waters of Western Washington.
Photo taken in September 2014 shows a baby orca swimming between two adults near Seattle. It apparently died while its pod was in the open ocean off Washington or British Columbia. It has not been seen since the L pod returned in recent days to the inland waters of Western Washington. AP Photo/Center for Whale Research

Not even a year ago, headlines carried the sad news of a pregnant orca found dead near Vancouver Island.

We mourned the decline of our local salmon-eating orca population, which hovered at a 30-year low. Things didn’t look good.

What was happening? Was it toxin levels? Lack of food? Warming waters?

A year later, six new orca calves grab our attention and rumor has it more may be on the way.

Why the sudden change? This week the Puget Sound Partnership released its 2015 State of the Sound report, and its findings are sobering. At 83 Southern Resident Killer Whales, we remain below the 2010 baseline count of 86. We are far from reaching the 2020 goal of 95 healthy orca whales.

There is some good news in the report: Water quality shows signs of improvement, and efforts to restore and protect habitat are making progress. Habitat work in estuaries, floodplains and river banks is the foundation needed for providing resting and feeding areas that salmon and smaller fish like herring require. Increases in healthy habitat should mean increases in salmon, which feed hungry orcas. (And people generally like clean water and safe seafood, too.)

We see the equation, and we know it’s not magic.

Despite the progress, we’ve got much work to do. For more than 100 years, Puget Sound was taken for granted; then reality caught up with us. We now know we can’t dump toxic chemicals, sewage and trash into our waterways and expect it to cause no harm. We can’t pave our flood plains and develop our forests and farmland without negative impacts.

We can turn this around, but it will take decades of persistent effort for the health of our salmon, orca and Puget Sound to stabilize.

This reality does not daunt the tribes, governments, nonprofits, businesses, scientists, and countless individuals who are working hard to save our Sound.

And we have a plan. The Puget Sound Action Agenda is the shared vision for what needs to be done to get Puget Sound back on track. Hundreds of partners come together to regularly update this regional roadmap to recovery and evaluate what’s working, and what’s not.

It’s a complex problem with a simple truth: The No. 1 barrier to Puget Sound ecosystem recovery is a lack of coordination and involvement at all levels.

This is why we believe it’s so important to move forward our bipartisan bill, the PUGET SOS Act. That’s why every representative from Washington – Democrat and Republican – has sponsored this critical bill.

The federal government must do its part, too. Our bill would enhance the federal government’s role and investment in the Puget Sound, the largest estuary in the United States by water volume. It recognizes the Sound as a water body of national significance – putting it on par with other endangered waters like the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. The act also ensures that everyone at the federal, state, tribal and local levels are operating from the same playbook.

Investing in Puget Sound isn’t just about saving the salmon or the orcas. It’s about people, too. It’s about clean water to drink, healthy food to eat, a stable economy, protecting tribal treaty rights, being resilient to climate change and flooding, and an endless number of quality of life benefits.

By making smart, science-based investments in high-priority, multi-benefit projects, we can save ourselves the future heartache and financial burden we’d be leaving our grandchildren. We can make a difference and we can keep the number of those calves growing in the Sound’s waters.

Our ecosystem is sending us an SOS. Let’s heed the call.

Denny Heck, D-Olympia, represents the 10th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, represents the 6th District.

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