Washington's rich and diverse environment provides endless opportunities and activities. It provides habitat to countless plants and animals, as well as important commercial and recreational activities that help our state's economy.
Unfortunately a silent source of pollution, stormwater runoff, threatens the treasured waters of the state. This was the message participants heard at a recent public forum we co-sponsored at the state Capitol.
This unique gathering included a panel discussion led by William Ruckelshaus, former Chair of the Puget Sound Partnership, with stormwater experts from the Association of Washington Business (AWB) and the state's Department of Ecology. The open discussion provided an opportunity for all sides of the public debate to review the causes and solutions of one of the state's top environmental concerns.
The discussion is timely, especially given the numerous calls and legislative attempts to increase taxes and fees to fund stormwater runoff projects. The calls for additional stormwater funding, however, are not consistent with several key points made during the forum.
Before considering additional funding sources for stormwater projects, we need a better understanding of the stormwater challenge, what funding is currently available, and these taxes and fees are spent and prioritized. The expert panel agreed there is a need for a greater understanding of the problems presented by stormwater runoff.
The first question of the forum asked our experts to identify the source of the problem. The panel's unanimous response was "it is all of us" that causes stormwater pollution through runoff.
Stormwater runoff is also known as non-point source pollution. It is a product of urban development. Impervious surfaces like parking lots, rooftops and roads collect a variety of materials like oil and gas that come from each of us. Byproducts from our vehicles, landscaping and pet waste run through stormwater systems, often directly to the state's waters.
Since the source of this type of pollution is essentially everyone, any solution, the panelists acknowledged, must include everyone.
That is why public education needs to be part of any solution. There are several examples of policies with broad support that can raise public awareness.
Two particular examples stand out. One is the Washington Stormwater Center, created through legislation spearheaded by AWB. The Stormwater Center is a good example of a private-public partnership working together to invent new methods and technologies to prevent runoff contamination of area waterways.
The work of the Puget Sound Partnership is the other example. The Partnership was created just a few years ago and is charged with protecting and cleaning up the Sound by 2020. This charge includes an educational component. The Partnership has created a useful site, Puget Sound Starts Here, with helpful hints allowing the public to become a partner in protecting the Sound.
Voluntary programs that work to educate the public are fundamental to finding affordable solutions.
Finally, everyone at our forum agreed we need to make the most of the resources we have, especially in a time of constrained budgets and when the public appetite for imposing new taxes is low.
Bill Ruckelshaus' opened the forum by stating that the biggest challenge facing the stormwater issue is the lack of coherent priority setting. Ruckelshaus noted current efforts included several layers of government, all of which are "engaged" in preventing stormwater runoff, but very little of that governance effort is focused on setting clear priorities.
Despite a lack of direction, the state, federal and local governments will have spent more than $800 million on water quality projects around the state during the last two years.
As we continue to live, play and work in the great Pacific Northwest, we must be mindful of how we can better participate in maintaining the natural beauty and valuable resources around us. When it comes to stormwater it is clear that proper education and careful prioritization of clean water spending will go a long way in reducing the impacts from stormwater, and will help improve the overall health of the Sound.
Grant Nelson is Government Affairs Director with the Association of Washington Business. Brandon Houskeeper is an Environmental Policy Analyst with Washington Policy Center.