Protection strategies for Puget Sound

Puget Sound has been dramatically altered during the past 150 years. One-third of the shoreline has been armored, large areas of forestland and farmland have been paved or otherwise converted to other uses, and river systems have been altered by dams and levees. These actions were undertaken to produce other benefits, but they cumulatively damage and destroy the underlying ecological processes that enable Puget Sound to be healthy and productive. Human population growth and a changing climate in Puget Sound will exacerbate the threats to ecosystem health. To maintain or restore the structure and function of the Puget Sound ecosystem, it is imperative to identify and retain the important features of the ecosystem that still function well.

The region lacks a comprehensive, integrated marine and upland habitat protection strategy to preserve sites and areas with the highest ecological value. Habitat protection until now has been scattered, opportunistic, and disconnected from the physical processes that build and sustain habitat features. Current environmental protection measures in Puget Sound fail to protect ecosystem processes and structure because the measures were intended to protect individual pieces of the system, typically at the site scale, rather than the larger scale of the Puget Sound ecosystem. Since the 1970s, federal, state, and local governments employed numerous protective regulations, land use planning tools, acquisition of property, incentive programs, and education/stewardship programs designed to protect the environment and to manage for and minimize the adverse consequences of human population growth and associated land cover change. Despite these efforts, many activities continue to alter and degrade habitat across the lands and waters of the Puget Sound region, placing our ecosystem at increased risk from existing and future development.

The Action Agenda identifies a comprehensive protection strategy for Puget Sound ecosystems that reflects five primary objectives:

A.1 Focus growth away from ecologically important and sensitive areas by encouraging dense, compact cities, vital rural communities, and protected areas that support the ecosystem Soundwide.

Attractive cities with appealing neighborhoods, open and vegetated spaces, quality schools, efficient transportation systems, and cultural amenities provide a high quality of life that encourages people to live in cities. This also protects the ecosystem. Growth strategies need to encourage density, retain rural communities with working and viable resources lands, and use planning tools to keep shorelines and vegetated areas intact and functional.


A.2 Permanently protect the intact areas of the Puget Sound ecosystem that still function well.

Permanent protection of intact habitat can translate to dedicated networks of open spaces, preserves, wildlife corridors, functional working resource lands, and nearshore, floodplain and estuarine environments. This is a keystone piece of the Puget Sound protection strategy.

Tools to protect key ecosystem processes include regulatory programs, acquisition programs, the outright purchase of property, partial acquisition of development rights or conservation easements, and conservation leasing. Special designations such as Wilderness, Wild and Scenic Rivers, and Outstanding Water Resources can be used to ensure protection happens. Acquiring development rights from highly productive working resource lands, such as farms and forests, is an effective way to protect ecosystem processes/structures while ensuring long-term productivity of working landscapes and rural communities. Government agencies, not-for-profit organizations, and others can assist with permanent protection efforts. Because these protection efforts are so important, assessing the effectiveness of regulatory and other protection methods is needed.    

A.3 Protect and conserve freshwater resources to increase and sustain water availability for instream and human uses.

Surface water flows and groundwater resources in most watersheds of Puget Sound have been compromised as a result of dams, other modifications, loss and change of vegetative cover, water withdrawals for municipal, domestic, commercial, industrial, and agricultural water supplies, and in some cases, over allocation of water rights. Climate change will compound these problems by reducing snowpack and groundwater infiltration, increasing stormwater runoff, raising stream temperatures, and concentrating pollutants in water bodies. As a result, Puget Sound aquatic habitats are degraded, native species have declined, and there is an uncertain future water supply for human consumption. Low flows are identified as priority issues for salmon in 14 of the 19 Puget Sound Water Resource Inventory Areas.

Puget Sound watersheds need a comprehensive approach to protecting year-round, instream flows for people and instream uses. This is particularly important with more people coming to the region and projected increases in water demand. Current approaches to managing stream flows, groundwater, water use, land use, and stormwater management are fragmented and the many programs that address water quantity are not coordinated. A fundamental realignment in policy and regulation is needed at the state level to fix the system, one that ensures the protection of natural hydrologic processes and associated habitats within Puget Sound watersheds. Some of these actions will also help improve water quality.

A.4 Support long-term protection and stewardship of working farms, forests, and shellfish farms to help maintain ecosystem function, sustain quality of life, and improve the viability of rural communities.

Working lands can contribute to wildlife habitat and migration corridors, aquifer recharge, floodwater retention, and infiltration. Keeping farms and forests in production helps maintain these benefits. There are numerous voluntary incentive and stewardship programs available to rural property owners in Washington. Landowner incentive programs include direct financial incentives (e.g., grants, subsidized loans, cost-shares, leases); indirect financial incentives (e.g., property or sales tax relief); technical assistance (e.g., referrals, education, training, design assistance programs); and recognition and certification of products and operations. Additional financial incentives may be needed to encourage some owners of working lands to continue their operations. Current use and effectiveness of voluntary incentive and stewardship programs vary. These programs should be focused on the highest priority areas in the Puget Sound ecosystem.

A.5 Prevent and rapidly respond to the introduction of invasive species.

Invasive, non-native species are brought to the Puget Sound through: imported fruits, plants, and vegetables; ballast water discharge from ships; imported soil; and commercial/recreational boat hulls. In Puget Sound, invasive species can alter native habitats and compete with native species. This reduces the resiliency of ecosystems, changes local habitats, and introduces diseases. Preventing the introduction of new invasive species is more effective than trying to reduce and remove them later.

Puget Sound Action Agenda 2009

About the Author: 
The Puget Sound Partnership is a state-supported effort of citizens, governments, tribes, scientists and businesses working together to restore and protect Puget Sound. The Partnership's legislatively mandated Action Agenda prioritizes cleanup and improvement projects and coordinates federal, state, local, tribal and private resources.