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Originally published Friday, February 17, 2012 at 3:40 PM

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Saving Puget Sound: the battle between good intentions and science

Heed science and chart a new course in cleaning up Puget Sound: Urban stormwater runoff, rather than sewer overflows, is the big problem, says Ron Sims, recent appointee to the Leadership Council and former King County executive.

Special to The Times

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SINCE classical antiquity, human construct and skepticism have butted with science. History is replete with disbelievers of science.

For example, history records that President James Garfield, an early advocate for African American suffrage, one of the most talented men intellectually and one of the most gifted orators ever to be a U.S. president, was assassinated by a lone gunman.

Actually, he was killed by his incapable doctors, who disregarded the European medical community's call for sterilized surgical devices. American medicine ignored science and a president of the United States died from serious infections.

Similarly, by ignoring science, we are allowing Puget Sound to suffer a comparable fate — a slow death by poisoning.

We have appropriately spent billions of dollars to clean up our streams, lakes, rivers and the Sound. Some investments still need to be made. However, we are at a crossroads. We can either continue to pursue costly investments that do little to protect the Sound, or we can face scientific facts and chart a different, more productive path.

Consider our current regional policy of reducing sewer overflows. Combined sewer overflow reductions from 1981 to 1999 cost King County residents, whom I represented as county executive, about 10 cents per gallon to control 800 million gallons per year of overflow.

The next group of projects, from 1999 to 2005, designed to control 727 million gallons per year, cost county residents 37 cents per gallon, more than three times as much per gallon of overflow.

The estimated cost from 2005 until 2030 to control the next 677 million gallons per year is $1.05 per gallon of yearly overflow, another tripling of the cost per gallon.

Scientists and regulators are concerned that the marginal return of these additional investments may not make economic sense or benefit the biological health of the Puget Sound — especially compared with graver threats to its well-being.

We need to ask ourselves: Do we continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars more in what will fail to prevent the loss of the Puget Sound's value as a biological habitat for millions of species? Or, will we pivot and make investments that actually save Puget Sound?

The debate between federal, state and local governments on what the Sound actually needs — the battle between good intentions and science — is ongoing.

The incidents of acidification of the Sound and fish suffocating in Hood Canal are not resolved by investments in combined sewer overflow.

The Washington State Department of Ecology, in its 2007 study of toxic chemicals loading into Puget Sound, cited 980 billion gallons of urban runoff going into the Sound on an annual basis from the counties of King, Snohomish, Thurston, Pierce, Skagit and Kitsap, but only 1.2 billion gallons of combined sewer overflow.

Pollutants from urban runoff — petroleum residues and toxic chemicals from motor vehicles, pesticides from lawns and gardens, viruses and bacteria from pet waste, heavy metals from roof shingles, and other toxins — are streaming unabated into the Sound and killing it.

What the Sound needs are investments and land-use policies that reduce the contaminants carried by stormwater.

I believe jurisdictions should be given the latitude to use a variety of approaches to stop and prevent pollutants from impacting Puget Sound. Cities and counties should have a menu to choose from — land use, revegetation, flood plain protections, stormwater control, sewer overflow reductions — and select what is best for the biological health of the Sound. We need to have options instead of a single combined sewer overflow enforcement approach that is now the policy.

As a nation and a state we are legally and morally obliged to honor the treaties with Native American tribes of the Puget Sound. In an honest, forthright and science-based document provided to the White House's National Environmental Council, the tribes raised significant concerns about the loss of the biological function of the Sound and its basin river systems. They asked the federal government to address it.

Ratepayers, too, want to stop the pollution of Puget Sound. Obviously, this will come at a cost and the public is not a limitless ATM. Taxpayers and ratepayers are entitled to the very best results. Yet, neither the tribes nor the rest of us will get the best results if we stick to good intentions based on misdirected policy.

The federal government and state regulators need to embark on a new course. They need to listen to the treaty tribes and the chorus of scientists who feel a new direction is needed. Our goal should be to ensure that Puget Sound can sustain its beautiful, amazing and hallowed biological diversity — even if it means acknowledging we are presently on the wrong track.

Ron Sims is the former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and former King County executive. He was recently appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire to serve on the Leadership Council, a seven-member volunteer citizen group that governs the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency established to protect and restore Puget Sound.

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