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Originally published November 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 6, 2008 at 2:36 PM

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Guest columnist

Orcas are a call to action on Puget Sound cleanup

We have to act now to protect and clean up the waters in and around Puget Sound before all of the orcas are lost forever.

Special to The Times

The recent alarming news that Puget Sound's orca population may be starving to death is more than just sad news about an endangered species, it's a clarion call for action to clean up Puget Sound.

If orcas, which are at the top of the food chain, are dying from hunger, it doesn't take a marine biologist to figure out what is happening further down the food chain.

While Puget Sound remains a beautiful sight, just below the surface the evidence is clear that Puget Sound is sick and dying: 52 million pounds of untreated toxic chemicals including oil and petroleum products, PCBs and phthalates flow into the rivers, streams, lakes and bays that make up Puget Sound every year, according to a new report being issued today.

Because of these toxic chemicals, the Puget Sound ecosystem is nearing collapse. Forty species in the Sound — including orcas, otters, steelhead and salmon — are listed as threatened, at risk or endangered. Beaches are closed because of pollution. Some portions of Hood Canal are so oxygen-starved they contain large areas known as dead zones.

And our orcas are the most contaminated whales in the world. Dead orcas that wash ashore here are so laden with toxins that they must be disposed of via hazardous-waste sites.

Increasing population growth, development and the loss of thousands of acres of forestland and farmland every year — not to mention the loss of vital shoreline and nearshore areas — are only making things worse.

But as the declining orca population suggests, time is not our friend. We have to act now to protect and clean up the waters in and around Puget Sound before all of the orcas are lost forever.

That's why the governor and the Legislature created the Puget Sound Partnership — to figure out how Puget Sound is being polluted, what should be done to clean it up and how to protect it in the future.

Thousands of people have helped the Partnership during the past 18 months to develop an Action Agenda for Puget Sound. It's the most comprehensive appraisal of Puget Sound ever conducted.

Today, we are releasing a draft Action Agenda for Puget Sound recovery. The recommendations fall in four strategic areas:

• . Protect critical working forestland, farms and shoreline. As our region grows, we need to concentrate development closer to our cities — and away from sensitive lands that are keeping the Sound going.

Restore land that has been degraded. Restoration efforts need to bring large portions of river, wetland and marine systems back to life. Every watershed in the Puget Sound region has a salmon-recovery plan that prioritizes restoration efforts. These need to be implemented.

Reduce water pollution. We have to reduce the discharge of contaminants into the Sound by upgrading and improving existing sewage-treatment plants, and by providing incentives to local governments and developers to use new, innovative methods to manage stormwater.

Coordinate efforts to restore Puget Sound. Many agencies, organizations and individuals are currently working to restore Puget Sound, but their efforts have not been well coordinated. We want to knock down the walls that separate all of the parties, and by doing so, create shared goals and more efficient use of scarce financial and human resources.

While we work on these big-picture strategies, we will also do what we can to provide immediate support for endangered species, including orcas. We are looking at initiatives, for example, to accelerate recovery of chinook salmon runs — salmon being a staple of the orca diet. And we are looking at the largest estuary-restoration project in the Pacific Northwest, currently under way at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, as a model for other regional projects that will help recover salmon.

We can't let orcas starve to death or pretend Puget Sound will fully recover on its own. But government alone cannot do all of the work. We will have to heavily rely on creative market incentives to preserve forests and farms, prevent runoff that is poisoning the Sound, encourage increased density in our urban areas, and adopt practices that provide for a more sustainable environment.

Our entire region working together with a shared commitment to save the Sound is what makes the Partnership different. We are focusing on what we can do to ensure that the rivers, streams, lakes and bays that make up Puget Sound are healthy for orcas, fish, birds and people for generations to come.

David Dicks is executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership. The draft Action Agenda will be available on the Partnership's Web site (www.psp.wa.gov) today. The Partnership will submit the final Action Agenda to the Legislature on Dec. 1.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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