Puget Sound recovery efforts could get a boost from a newly proposed five-year, $494-billion economic stimulus package, according to U.S. Reps. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, and Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor.
The two Washington congressmen, known for their efforts to help restore the Puget Sound ecosystem, spoke online Friday to more than 160 people during the first Virtual Puget Sound Days on the Hill forum. The event was sponsored by the Puget Sound Partnership, the agency coordinating the recovery of Puget Sound.
While the bill’s future is uncertain, this so-called “Invest in America Act” would improve the nation’s eroding transportation systems and rebuild the crumbling infrastructure, according to the bill’s primary sponsor, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. It would also help to lift the nation out of an economic slump brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
While the bill is designed around transportation, Heck and Kilmer said they expect significant amounts of money to be allocated for reducing the environmental impacts of roads, bridges and rail networks — specifically targeting dollars to stormwater improvements.
“You’ve heard me say it many times,” Heck noted, “but I don’t think it can be said often enough: Stormwater is the number-1 source of pollution to Puget Sound and for all waterways in the United States of America.”
According to Heck, 29 million jobs have been lost to the pandemic, the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression. The situation has brought to light social and structural inequities that plague our society, he said. The challenge is to “combat the virus” and “recharge the economy” in ways that address the systemic problems that harm communities of color and others, he added.
Among other efforts, he said, thousands of jobs could be created by focusing attention on Puget Sound recovery.
“I think we’re wise to suggest that infrastructure investment is a way to get more people back to work,” Heck said. “I have no doubt that we will be making substantial increases in infrastructure. I think the key is to broadly define it as more than just roads and bridges. It should include investments in Puget Sound recovery.”
House Democrats are generally supportive of the nearly $500 billion in expenditures outlined in the Invest in America Act, but the Republican-led Senate appears to be of mixed sentiment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated that further expenditures related to the pandemic should be narrowly confined.
“As Senate Republicans have made clear for weeks, future efforts must be laser-focused on helping schools reopen safely in the fall, helping American workers continue to get back on the job, and helping employers reopen and grow,” McConnell said Friday in a news release.
On Saturday, White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett said he was sure there would be another stimulus package, but the specifics would depend on how well jobs rebound as businesses reopen. Check out his interview with Fox News anchor Charles Payne.
Two weeks ago, some Republicans were voicing strong support for an infrastructure bill, but others had their own ideas to stimulate the economy, as reported by Manu Raju and Lauren Fox of CNN.
Meanwhile, Kilmer and Heck keep pushing for Puget Sound funding, an issue high on their list of priorities.
The two came into the House at the same time in 2013. Kilmer took over the 6th District seat of U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, who was a powerful supporter of Puget Sound issues for 36 years. Heck was elected to the new 10th District in South Puget Sound, a district created as a result of the state’s population growth. Late last year, Heck announced his retirement from Congress, effective at the end of this year.
Heck and Kilmer were joint sponsors of the PUGET SOS bill, which passed the House in February. If approved by the Senate, the bill would create a new Puget Sound Recovery Office in the Environmental Protection Agency, formalize the federal Puget Sound Leadership Task Force, and authorize $50 million for federal agencies to work on Puget Sound problems. (PUGET SOS = Promoting United Government Efforts To Save Our Sound.)
“That’s a bill that will make sure the federal government is the strong partner that state, tribal and local entities need to save our sound,” Kilmer said during Friday’s forum. If the bill becomes law, he said, federal agencies will “assist regional efforts to restore salmon and orca populations and ensure that future generations can dig for clams and uphold tribal treaty rights.”
Kilmer noted that the House was able to alter the course of President Trump’s budget, which would have eliminated EPA funding from a program called the Puget Sound Geographic Fund. In fact, the congressional budget increased expenditures by $5 million, to $33 million last year. The money is used to carry out planning and restoration, as spelled out in the Puget Sound Partnership’s Action Agenda.
Reducing flooding and stormwater pollution, restoring shoreline habitat and removing culverts to improve fish passage are all part of the effort that can help recover Puget Sound and create new jobs to help the economy, Kilmer said.
Kilmer said he was excited to see that the Army Corps of Engineers will spend $3 million to begin design of a new fish-passage project at Howard Hanson Dam on the Green River. The project, requested by Washington’s entire congressional delegation, has the potential to reclaim more than 100 miles of salmon-spawning habitat. The project will take time and money, Kilmer cautioned, but the benefits will be enormous.
Kilmer said it is time to put Puget Sound funding programs “on steroids” to reverse the course of Chinook salmon and killer whale populations in Puget Sound. Both Chinook and orcas are headed toward extinction, along with several other species, if conditions don’t improve, experts say.
“As a member of the (House) Appropriations Committee, that will be my top priority,” Kilmer said. “In addition, we need to be working to create new federal programs that will help fill remaining gaps in addressing the challenges we are facing as a result of this unprecedented public health and economic crisis.”
Kilmer unveiled two new programs he is proposing:
- A Coastal Restoration Corps, modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s.The organization would provide training for people working in the field of environmental restoration while improving coastal habitats in 28 estuaries throughout the United States, and
- A Coastal Resilience Design and Construction Program, which would enlist the Army Corps of Engineers to work in partnership with state, local and tribal governments. The goal would be to develop coastal resilience projects and help maintain natural conditions in the face of sea-level rise and other environmental changes.
“This kind of development isn’t just good for the health of the Sound,” Kilmer said. “It has huge benefits for the health and safety of local communities as well. We cannot leave our front-line communities behind; the only way to succeed is to do it together.”
The next online meeting of Virtual Puget Sound Days on the Hill will be Friday, when U.S. Reps. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, and Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, will speak and answer questions. Advance registration is required at least 24 hours before the event.