The loggers arrived in July, toppling 35 acres of Douglas firs and cedars.
The bulldozers and excavators followed, scraping away the topsoil and leveling the land to golf-course smoothness. By this summer, the first of 166 homeowners will move here, to a place called McCormick Woods, west of Port Orchard in Kitsap County and a mile upstream from Puget Sound.
It’s an unremarkable transformation that happens every day. And it’s one of the biggest threats to Puget Sound.
The way we grow is undermining our promises to protect and restore Puget Sound, and could hobble a new rescue plan on which we may be asked to commit as much as $18 billion on top of the $9 billion we already expect to spend by 2020.
It happens one creek at a time as bulldozers and pavement disrupt the natural flow of water through the ecosystem, destroying habitat and sending billions of gallons of polluted runoff into the Sound.
At McCormick Woods the next victim is Anderson Creek, once one of the most unspoiled streams flowing to Sinclair Inlet. Today, there are plans to build hundreds of homes around it.
“Bye-bye, Anderson Creek,” said Ed O’Brien, a stormwater engineer for the state Department of Ecology.
Even as we continue to push to protect Puget Sound, the entire effort is up against the fact that we also need to make room for as many as 4 million more people who could move here this century.
And as we do, we are gradually eating away at the Sound’s finely tuned water-cleaning system by leveling as much as 10,000 acres of forest every year.
There’s no overt conspiracy to hurt the Sound. Instead, the damage is happening in the pursuit of cheaper land and economic development, a longing for big backyards and a resistance to urban density, and a need to keep home prices within reach of average people.
There are success stories. Cities no longer routinely pump partially treated sewage into the water. Some of the most polluted places, such as bays next to cities, are getting cleaned up. Some toxic chemicals are on the decline in animals. Factories today are much more restricted than 40 years ago in the pollution they pump into the Sound.
Yet we still struggle to protect Puget Sound and at the same time make room for everyone to live the way they want.
• Efforts to regulate stormwater are politically toxic, and state officials have balked at tougher, more costly controls.
• The developments we allow lag behind the latest stormwater designs, because many county and city goverments are still using 16-year-old rules.
• Even the newest engineering standards, some of the strictest in the country and ones that could add thousands of dollars to the cost of a home, aren’t enough to stop the damage.
• Perversely, developers who try promising new approaches to addressing stormwater face red tape that creates costly delays or hurts effectiveness.
“The implications for the Sound are dire,” said Gene Duvernoy, president of the Cascade Land Conservancy, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works to preserve undeveloped land.
“Puget Sound is a funnel. Anything that we do at the top end of the funnel comes out at the bottom end.”
The damage runoff does
Four decades ago, stormwater runoff wasn’t considered an environmental problem. After all, it wasn’t chemical pollution pouring from factory pipes or sewage plants. So builders dug ditches and laid pipes to send runoff to the handiest stream.
The result was quiet environmental decay.
Surging water flooded and scoured streams. Rain rushed off roads and rooftops, washing pollution into rivers.
Today, stormwater flowing into Puget Sound is a slow-motion oil spill, amounting to millions of gallons a year.
Leaking septic tanks ruin shellfish beds. Pesticides wash off lawns into streams. Copper poisons salmon, scrambling their ability to smell predators. Toxic flame retardants used in everything from televisions to mattresses enter the Puget Sound food chain, winding up in harbor seals and orcas. Dirt smothers fish eggs.
Coho salmon have been filmed going belly-up in Seattle streams after encountering a gush of stormwater. Creeks now go dry in the summer because we’ve messed with the groundwater that used to replenish them.
The state first tried to tackle the problem 16 years ago. In 1992, the state Department of Ecology issued an engineering manual describing how to build the pipes and ponds that cope with the rainwater flowing from developments around Puget Sound.
The approach called for channeling water into big holding ponds, where water would dribble out, reducing creek erosion from uncontrolled gushes. Dirt and pollutants would settle to a pond’s bottom instead of washing out to creeks and eventually the Sound.
But within a few years, it became clear the designs weren’t working well enough. The man-made holding ponds were too small to handle a good Puget Sound winter soaker.
So Ecology tried again with new engineering manuals that called for bigger and more costly ponds to catch even more stormwater.
But the state didn’t make them mandatory. So most local jurisdictions haven’t made changes.
At McCormick Woods near Port Orchard, Kitsap County commissioners promised in 2003 to require builders to follow the most up-to-date stormwater standards. At the same time, they approved what will amount to a small city with a business park, shopping, and more than 4,000 homes and apartments, ranging from big houses along a golf course to modest ones aimed at first-time buyers.
Yet they didn’t change any county stormwater rules. Kitsap County still follows the 1992 manual.
That’s not unusual. Snohomish, Skagit, Pierce, Thurston, Mason and Island counties all follow the 1992 manual, and so do countless cities.
Kitsap County hasn’t wanted to commit the time and effort to overhaul its engineering standards, which it adopted in 1997, said Jeff Rowe-Hornbaker, assistant director of the Community Development Department. He also questioned the worth of the state’s newer standards.
“Until it’s mandated, most organizations don’t really act,” he said.
New rules, same problems
Now most local governments don’t have a choice. The Ecology Department plans to force many, including Kitsap County, to adopt its newest stormwater engineering manual by August 2009.
But scientists – and even the Ecology Department’s own experts – say the new standards won’t protect Puget Sound either.
The simple fact is this: It’s nearly impossible to get pipes and ponds to imitate a forest.
The new stormwater designs screen out some pollution, but not all of it. And pavement still prevents rain from soaking into the ground.
Even a little development can do a lot of damage. Stormwater scientists have found that when the amount of roads, rooftops and parking lots surrounding a stream – called “impervious surfaces” – goes above even 5 percent, it means environmental decline.
That’s trouble for Anderson Creek at McCormick Woods, currently home to steelhead, coho and chum-salmon runs. When construction is finished, the creek is expected to be 40 percent surrounded by impervious surface. At that level, scientists expect a big drop in wildlife, including fish, songbirds and amphibians.
Two years ago, a group of 14 scientists and engineers finally had enough. They wrote a letter to a 2006 Puget Sound commission appointed by Gov. Christine Gregoire, saying “little hope should be held for restoration of Puget Sound” if sweeping changes weren’t made to address stormwater.
The scientists called for severely restricting new construction near healthy streams, stopping deforestation, engineering developments to let rain soak into the ground, and replacing antiquated stormwater systems.
But the proposal was dismissed as “wholly unrealistic and naive” by the Master Builders of King and Snohomish Counties, one of the state’s most powerful building lobbies.
The association’s executive, Sam Anderson, said new stormwater systems hadn’t been used long enough to declare them a failure.
Ignored, developers say, is the cost more regulation adds to the price of new homes, putting them further out of reach of average people. Builders complain that the newest stormwater requirements will add thousands to the costs of building each house. They point to a new study from a University of Washington economist saying land-use regulations have already added $200,000 to the price of an average Seattle home.
Peter Orser, president of Quadrant Homes of Bellevue, the arm of Weyerhaeuser that starts five new homes around Puget Sound every workday, argues that new-home builders shouldn’t bear all the burdens of restoring Puget Sound.
After all, there are plenty of older neighborhoods that dump stormwater into the Sound with virtually no control.
“We don’t go in there to rape the land,” he said. “Everything we do is done in the lowest-impact development we can.”
Do permits have teeth?
This is the climate that Jay Manning, the state Ecology director, landed in last year when he announced reforms meant to change the way we deal with stormwater.
Manning praised the new approach as “one of the most important steps that this agency has taken in many years” to deal with the problem. But the new rules – contained in a permit most cities and counties need under the Federal Clean Water Act – were compromised from the start because of opposition from business and local governments.
Under the permit rules, which the Ecology Department wrote, dozens of Puget Sound cities and counties would finally have to start following Ecology’s latest engineering manual.
To upgrade antiquated stormwater systems in most places around the Sound, developers who tear down an old building to put up a new one would need to control more runoff. And some counties and cities, for the first time, would have to start monitoring stormwater systems to see if they work.
But Mike Grady, a top policy adviser for the Seattle office of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency in charge of protecting Puget Sound chinook and orcas, says the permit doesn’t go far enough. It sets no limits on the amount of toxic chemicals allowed in stormwater, he said. The permit also doesn’t require any of the latest, environmentally friendly development methods.
“To me it comes down to, when are you going to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘These standards are not protective to fish, so let’s not pretend that they are,’ ” Grady said.
The Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the fisheries service have told the state Ecology Department that the permit should go further.
But department leaders have been unwilling to try, in part because of politics, according to internal memos.
In 2003, Bill Moore, the department’s lead stormwater-policy adviser, acknowledged in a memo to top Ecology department managers that fully protecting water quality would require much stricter rules. But that would mean a bruising backlash from business and local government that could hurt the chances for progress, he said.
Moore recommended that the department instead aspire to a permit that was “adequate-to-good.”
For example, the Ecology Department decided counties and cities can let developers in most places off the hook in following the new standards, if they build on less than an acre. That was despite opposition from some of the agency’s own experts, who warned research showed many small developments could add up to significant damage.
Environmental groups are now suing the Ecology Department to get tougher rules. But on the other side, a host of cities and counties are suing to block the new permit, which they argue is unduly burdensome and costly.
In a recent interview, Moore defended his agency’s position. Stormwater permits alone, he said, can’t conquer a much more fundamental issue affecting Puget Sound: where and how we build.
So where and how should we be building around Puget Sound, a place where millions of new residents will all want their own places to call home?
Environmentalists and some developers say low-impact development is one answer. The state is starting to promote it, and some local governments say they want to change their rules to allow it.
It turns out it’s easier said than done.
The idea sounds simple: Design developments to act more like forests by allowing rainwater to soak into the ground through permeable pavement with tiny holes. Build special gardens to soak up the rain that sluices from gutters. Some even suggest building houses on short columns that leave the forest floor untouched.
But the concept runs up against decades of habits and rules: the assembly-line methods of major developers, concerns that low-impact methods are unproven and bureaucrats wedded to old methods.
Today, only a few adventurous developers dare to try new approaches. But many complain of costly delays, roadblocks and outright opposition from government officials resistant to trying something new.
At McCormick Woods, Kitsap County promised to encourage developers to use these low-impact techniques. But there’s little sign of it at a new Quadrant Homes project under construction there.
The company says that a layer of tough, claylike earth – a common problem in Western Washington – makes novel approaches to stormwater management unworkable because the water won’t quickly soak into the ground.
Quadrant made a similar argument in Snoqualmie, persuading the City Council to reject a plan requiring low-impact development for much of its massive Snoqualmie Ridge development. The company is trying it in a few places there.
Still, Orser, Quadrant’s president, says he’s afraid the low-impact approach will make homes hard to sell to people unaccustomed to the look. He also worries the novel strategies will fail if homeowners don’t maintain things like rain gardens.
But some of the area’s top low-impact experts say the builders are copping out, and low-impact methods can still work with customized approaches to each project, instead of cookie-cutter formulas.
“It’s way easier for those guys to come in and do what they’ve always done until there’s some regulation that comes in and tells them to do something else,” said Curtis Hinman of Washington State University, who has written a widely used manual on low-impact development.
Partners in restoration
In 2007, with huge fanfare, the Legislature approved a new state agency, The Puget Sound Partnership. It’s supposed to lead a restoration of the Sound by 2020. As it formulates an overarching strategy, its leaders have vowed that stormwater and development issues will be prominent parts of the effort.
“We have to grow differently,” said David Dicks, the partnership’s executive director. “There’s just no two ways about it.”
In a recent draft report, a group of experts convened by the partnership called for a dramatic overhaul of the state’s myriad environmental laws, instead creating a single set of rules governing the land around Puget Sound. It also recommended a single group or superagency to oversee the new regulations.
“We do not reach this conclusion lightly,” said the report, which is meant to be part of a broader study underpinning the final cleanup plan. “However, in this case we believe it is warranted. The region has tried the uncoordinated, diffuse approach and it has not achieved success.”
But the Puget Sound Partnership has little power to create rules or enforce standards. Instead, the agency has been assigned the task of writing a recovery plan, doling out money to governments and nonprofit groups, drumming up public support and nudging local and state agencies in the right direction.
Brad Ack, who headed the state’s previous Puget Sound agency, the Puget Sound Action Team, points to recent compromises as a possible preview of things to come.
The governor’s 2006 Puget Sound commission recommended incremental improvements in the handling of stormwater, triggering criticism from scientists who said it wasn’t nearly enough. When the commission responded by suggesting a task force to look at the problem, the builders’ lobby fought back. The task force was quietly scrapped.
Stormwater was “the gorilla in the room that we came right up to and touched … but nobody was willing to confront,” said Ack, who now works for a group that promotes sustainable seafood harvesting.
“People just said, ‘We don’t have time to deal with that. It’s too controversial. It’s too complex.’ “
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or email@example.com