Puget Sound Agency
6:04 am
Fri July 20, 2012

New Director Aims to Shore Up Puget Sound Agency

Governor Chris Gregoire created the Puget Sound Partnership five years ago to revive the stalled cleanup of Puget Sound. Now, with six months left in her term as governor, she's replaced the agency head in hopes he can accelerate progress on the sound. He'll be the Partnership's third director in five years. KUOW's John Ryan has the story.

The governor did a whirlwind tour of Puget Sound on Wednesday to highlight the accomplishments of the Puget Sound Partnership. Last stop on the tour was Seahurst Park in Burien. From the park's seawall, you can look north all the way to West Seattle.

Burien and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers removed a thousand feet of that seawall to restore a natural beach and habitat for young salmon. The governor's press materials give credit to the Partnership for this restored shoreline. But it was restored in 2005--before the Partnership existed.

Now the park, with Partnership support, plans to remove another quarter-mile or more of the seawall, starting this fall. That would breathe new life into one of the most important spots in Puget Sound for the small fish that salmon feed on. It would also slow down beach erosion in the park and beyond.

Steve Roemer is with the Burien Parks department.

Roemer: "Burien's pretty representative of the rest of the sound, especially the sound from Burien up to Elliott Bay and Seattle area. That stretch is about 84 percent bulkheaded."

Most of those concrete bulkheads sit in front of waterfront homes. Collectively those seawalls add up to one of the biggest problems for Puget Sound. About 40 percent of the sound's shorelines are walled off from the tides.

Roemer: "The rare opportunity we have a public space like this in Burien gives us the chance to restore about a mile of Puget Sound shoreline from concrete and rock bulkheads to natural slopes."

Absent from the Gregoire's entourage was Gerry O'Keefe, the current director of the Puget Sound Partnership. The governor ousted O'Keefe earlier this month. The move surprised agency staff and outside observers alike. O'Keefe could not be reached for comment.

In Burien, the governor said O'Keefe did a good job, as did his predecessor, David Dicks. But she said it's time for the agency move beyond a start-up phase that has lasted five years now.

Ryan: "Isn't that a long time for a start-up phase?"

Gregoire: "No, not when you realize that we weren't practically getting any money from the federal government, and we're now getting almost $50 million annually; when you realize we have brought together the best of science and science papers to tell us exactly what we should do. We have made sure that we've got a priority list of where the dollars should be spent to get the greatest return on investment."

The Partnership has invested many millions of dollars under its legal mandate to restore the ecological health of Puget Sound by the year 2020. Environmentalists have criticized the agency for being heavy on process and light on results. The head of People for Puget Sound recently said the Partnership needs to "stop dithering." Indian tribes with treaty rights to the fish and shellfish in Puget Sound are also impatient.

Michael Grayum is in charge of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. It represents 20 tribes in western Washington.

Grayum: "There's a lot of good restoration projects. The money's being well spent on restoration. The problem is that we can't restore shoreline as fast as it's being destroyed. We need to stop bleeding, stop the destruction, so that the restoration effort can then trend us in a positive direction toward salmon recovery."

Puget Sound shorelines are being encased in concrete ten times faster than they're being restored. That's according to estimates from the Department of Fish and Wildlife over the past six years.

The incoming director of the Partnership is retired Army Corps of Engineers Col. Tony Wright. He has a reputation as a straight shooter who's not out to please everybody. Before he got this job, he told the Partnership it needed more courage if it wants to save Puget Sound. He says he's not afraid to "embrace the porcupine."

Wright: "My previous job, I frequently tried to make everyone kind of equally unhappy. You can't solve difficult problems from a distance. You have to get in there, become part of the solution and sometimes you get stuck with quills in the process."

I asked Wright what he plans to do in the six months before this governor is out of office.

Wright: "I don't know how long the job'll last. But I think that there's a lot that I can do. There's a lot of great people that share my passion for restoring the sound, and I'm confident we can get something done. Exactly what that's going to be--give me at least a day on the job first before I tell you what exactly it's going to be."

Tony Wright takes the helm at the Puget Sound Partnership on Monday.