The Puget Sound and its waters provide enormous benefits to ecosystems and species and are the lifeblood of the region’s economic, social, and cultural vitality. Yet increasing pressures from climate change and development have exacerbated legacy pollution issues and threatened the quality and quantity of water that people and nature depend on.
Puget Sound’s Current Condition
Puget Sound, the largest estuary in the United States by volume, is a unique and treasured feature of our region. Here, endangered orcas and salmon live alongside one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country. Puget Sound links the 4.2 million people who live around it, spread across 12 counties, and 19 tribal nations. With 2,500 miles of shoreline, it also connects over 10,000 rivers, streams, and creeks to the Salish Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
The region’s development pattern and rapid growth have accelerated the decline in water quality, which adversely affects human health, the safety and quality of local foods, our wild ecosystems, and threatens extinction of iconic species. Many waterways can no longer sustain life, lake closures are far more frequent, salmon runs are down 90 percent of historical levels, and as of 2019 we have 73 remaining orcas—a 30-year low.
Synthesizing the state of knowledge, the Stormwater Quality in Puget Sound report (Mackenzie & McIntyre, 2018) found extensive toxins in Puget Sound— including heavy metals, plastics, PCBs, flame retardants, herbicides and pesticides, oil grease, and pharmaceuticals, among others that deteriorate water quality for species like Chinook salmon, Southern Resident orca, and humans.
Climate change and population growth amplify and accelerate all of these trends. Solutions become harder the longer we wait to act.
THE ROLE OF CLIMATE CHANGE
The water cycle and carbon cycles are intrinsically linked. Carbon in our atmosphere is the trigger for a series of climate changes including temperature, precipitation, and sea level, all of which will increasingly disrupt human health, the environment, transportation, and our economy.
The Puget Sound region is profoundly at risk from climate change. Rising sea levels means eroded shorelines and flooded estuaries, including developed areas and farmlands. As precipitation patterns shift, the trend will be more moisture falling as rain and less as mountain snowpack that sustains rivers through the summers as it melts. The impact of this shift is multiple: flooding in winter, water shortages in summer, and less water in reservoirs for hydroelectric power.
Climate change also leads to warmer waters which can harm Chinook salmon stocks and have a devastating impact on orcas because they depend on Chinook salmon for food.
Photo: Ron Bailey
WHAT IS BEING DONE?
Approximately a quarter billion dollars is invested through the Puget Sound Partnership Action Agenda each year in the recovery of Puget Sound ecosystems. That reflects only a portion of public spending, often not counting local taxing authorities. It also leaves out public and private sector investments required by local, state and federal regulations. All these investments can be better coordinated and optimized for outcomes that deliver more value.
WHY IT’S NOT ENOUGH
The combined efforts of NGOs and public agencies cannot outpace nor match the deteriorating effects of development patterns and climate change. Despite two decades of work on Puget Sound recovery, we continue to lose ground against these urgent issues. The Puget Sound Vital Signs, used to measure and track progress of water quality, indicate only a third of the 31 tracked areas are improving.
Proactive, science-based solutions are helping. However, the existing toolbox is insufficient for the challenge at hand. Traditional, parcel-scale conservation investments are not making the headway we need. Infrastructure, regulation, and technological improvement may incrementally improve our overall water resilience, but these efforts will not adequately address today’s pollution loads and water availability.
Photo: Paul Joseph Brown
It’s Time for Comprehensive Action
We need to make a systemic shift in how communities address water quality and work towards integrated solutions. We must engage private land and private capital, in addition to public resources, and build a movement with businesses, NGOs, scientists, engineers, and public entities.
The future wellbeing of Puget Sound, our economy, and our residents will be defined by today’s actions. We know that Puget Sound will never be the same as it was 100 years ago. But together we can accelerate its recovery and protect its health for the benefit of everyone.