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A researcher gathers data at a herring spawning site in Puget Sound. Photo courtesy of NOAA.
A researcher gathers data at a herring spawning site in Puget Sound. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

How did science fare in this year’s legislature?

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By Jeff Rice

There is no such thing as a general “science budget” for the state of Washington, but scientific research is meant to inform and catalyze many of the policies that govern Puget Sound recovery.

There would be little understanding of how to protect Puget Sound’s beloved orcas without legions of scientists in the field, getting wet and collecting data. The maxim extends to any facet of ecosystem recovery, from Chinook marine survival to studies of zooplankton.

Even so, science funding can be nebulous. It may be a consequence of the state’s frenzied yearly budget cycle that lawmakers tend to favor immediate action over long-term studies and monitoring. That was implied in a 2017 audit by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee that called for more state support for monitoring of Puget Sound’s ecosystem health.

This year, monitoring fared a little better at the legislature, receiving $1,000,000 in support for staff and research at the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program. Other science did too. The Puget Sound Partnership received $2,222,000 to support additional science staff and a “competitive, peer-reviewed process for soliciting, prioritizing, and funding research projects designed to advance scientific understanding of Puget Sound recovery.”

According to Puget Sound Partnership legislative policy director Jeff Parsons, this is the first time that this staff position and the agency’s Puget Sound Scientific Research Account have been funded, and he called the general support “precedent setting.”

The biggest winner may have been the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration (PSAR) fund, which received $49.5 million “to enable the Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) to provide grants to projects that protect and restore the most critical salmon habitats in Puget Sound.” Some of this money, according to Parsons, will be made available to fund scientifically-based restoration and protection project development.

Science also informed decision-making, fueling recommendations from the governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force and jumpstarting several orca-protections bills relating to vessel traffic and habitat recovery.

“This is a year where the public was really supportive of Puget Sound restoration,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D – Bainbridge Island, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the state budget. She pointed to high public awareness of Puget Sound’s declining southern resident orcas as one of the drivers of this support. “I think the orca whale situation catalyzed concerns over what we are doing with the marine environment,” she said. “They were just the poster children for an ecosystem in crisis.”

Rolfes, who minored in environmental science in college, said the need for science funding is obvious.

“Puget Sound is in crisis,” she said. “You can’t know how to fix it unless you understand the science.”

While Rolfes was positive about the recent legislative session, she was less than misty-eyed about this year’s science funding. “There’s never enough money for anything,” she said of the state budget, “whether it is homelessness or science.”

”The amount of money the state put out is miniscule compared to the amount of research that needs to be done,” Rolfes said.

Is it a start? “I don’t even know if it’s a start,” she cautioned. “You can’t predict what the next legislature will do. But I always think you should celebrate the victories.”

Funding for Puget Sound recovery may also see a federal boost this year, with Congressmen Denny Heck, D-Olympia and Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, proposing a $5 million dollar increase over last year’s appropriation, potentially bringing 2020 fiscal year funding for the Puget Sound Geographic Program to $33 million dollars. [The Puget Sound Institute receives funding from this program, which is administered by EPA’s National Estuary Program.]

[See related story: Puget Sound advocates take their message to Congress].

Other support of Puget Sound-related recovery is more diffuse, but climbs into the hundreds of millions of dollars yearly if you include federal sources such as EPA, NOAA and the USGS or operating budgets at state agencies and other organizations. The Puget Sound Partnership identified 478.4 million dollars in funding administered by state-related programs “with benefits to Puget Sound” between 2015 and 2017, according to the Partnership’s 2017 State of the Sound report.

For a full list of newly-enacted legislation related to Puget Sound recovery, visit the Puget Sound Partnership website.