Federal support for Puget Sound recovery is on the rise, and there is growing hope that the Sound’s ecological problems will receive increased consideration and funding, according to U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor.
“With a (Democratic) majority in the House and the new Senate majority, and the White House, I think that we are going to see some progress,” Kilmer said, speaking Friday at the annual “Puget Sound Days on the Hill.”
In support of his optimism, Kilmer pointed out that his PUGET SOS bill, which would create a new office for Puget Sound within the Environmental Protection Agency, has already moved out of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, where it passed with strong bipartisan support, a vote of 54-3.
“I’m really psyched about that early action,” Kilmer told an online audience of more than 160 people, “because it gives us the best shot of seeing that bill actually cross the finish line.”
The bill, HB 1144, would bring together all federal agencies involved in Puget Sound restoration. With a proposed appropriation of $50 million a year, the new Puget Sound Recovery National Program Office is expected to strengthen the existing partnership — known as the Puget Sound Federal Leadership Task Force — and lead to stronger ties with state, local and tribal leaders. Check out Kilmer’s news release.
Kilmer said he hopes that the PUGET SOS bill will come to the House floor for a vote before the August recess, thanks to its early committee action.
Puget Sound Days on the Hill, sponsored by the Puget Sound Partnership and Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, brings together Puget Sound supporters and federal lawmakers. It is normally held in Washington, D.C, but was moved online for the second year in a row because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
U.S. Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Olympia, joined Kilmer in co-sponsoring PUGET SOS, which stands for Promoting United Government Efforts To Save Our Sound. Strickland was elected in November and appointed to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where her testimony on the PUGET SOS bill can be seen in the first video at 11:30, with U.S. Rep. Rick Larson, D-Everett, at 9:30.
After coming into office, Strickland picked up right where her predecessor, Denny Heck, left off — by serving as co-chair of the congressional Puget Sound Recovery Caucus. Heck, a Democratic from Olympia, was active on Puget Sound issues in Congress and now serves as Washington’s lieutenant governor. (See caucus membership.)
Strickland, who spoke after Kilmer during last week’s Days on the Hill meeting, said she understands that Puget Sound is linked to the identity of people of the region, especially Native Americans whose culture is embedded in federally recognized treaty rights. She said her vision “is to elevate Puget Sound the same way we talk about Chesapeake Bay or the Great Lakes.” Having a national office for Puget Sound within the EPA will help make that happen, she said.
Strickland, who grew up in the south part of Tacoma, said she never visited Tacoma’s waterfront until she was in college. “That seems so bizarre when you think about it,” she explained, “but for many communities that are underserved and communities of color, we still don’t think of the water as something that belongs to all of us.”
As people plan for an economy based on a variety of water-related jobs, Strickland said she wants to make sure that the opportunities are inclusive and that the discussion “brings in audiences who normally would not participate in this or, like me, simply didn’t know that this thing existed.”
Puget Sound has been diagnosed with poor water quality, damaged habitat and declining species. While some conditions are improving, others are not, despite restoration projects in every corner of Puget Sound. Stormwater runoff remains a major obstacle to clean water. See specifics in “Puget Sound Vital Signs.”
“It is an interesting thing that we are up against,” Strickland noted, “because this is one of the most rapidly growing regions in the United States. As our population gets larger, we know that Puget Sound is at more risk of becoming polluted.” And climate change brings even more potential perils, she added.
The third speaker of the day was U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, who said she has been encouraged with President Joe Biden’s focus on the future.
“It has been so hard under the past administration, when science and data were not valued,” she said, adding that the result was lost time in addressing the country’s problems, including disintegrating infrastructure.
“Investments in infrastructure aren’t for a year or two; we’re looking at investments that are 50-plus years,” DelBene said. “As we look at restoration, I think we need to be thinking about that too — how individual projects come together for a long-term plan.”
Kilmer said congressional leaders from both parties have understood the importance of Puget Sound and were willing to maintain and even increase funding, despite the Trump administration’s efforts to eliminate spending for the waterway. The Biden administration has not yet proposed a budget for Puget Sound, but a 22 percent increase has been proposed for EPA’s overall budget, “which offers a real opportunity for Puget Sound,” he said.
During a hearing of the Interior and Environment Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, Kilmer told the new EPA administrator, Michael Regan, about the needs of Puget Sound. Kilmer said Regan understands EPA’s vital role in Puget Sound recovery, and there is every reason to believe the agency will be a “willing and active partner” in addressing the difficult issues ahead. See video, with Kilmer’s remarks at 28:30, or read his news release.
“On the appropriations front, I’m excited to finally start playing some offense instead of just defending this program from proposals, as we saw in the last administration, to eliminate funding for this program entirely,” he said.
The Puget Sound recovery community, including concerned organizations and individuals, has proposed a funding increase for the Puget Sound Geographic Program from $34 million to $50 million; for the National Estuary Program from $32 million to $50 million; and for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund from $65 million to $70 million. Nearly 100 groups and individuals signed letters of support to the congressional subcommittees involved in appropriations. See one of six letters to Congress for the general sentiment and list of supporters.
Kilmer said Biden’s major infrastructure package — the “American Jobs Plan” — could also help with funding for Puget Sound, as the nation works to recover from the pandemic.
“It is clear that we’re going to need to see major federal investments to help our economy and get folks back to work,” Kilmer said. “I see Puget Sound restoration … as key components.”
Problems with flooding, stormwater runoff, shoreline structures and road culverts could be addressed with infrastructure improvements, he said. “These projects can get people back to work and promote economic activity, but they also accomplish long-term goals of recovering the Sound…
“Infrastructure is not just about building roads and bridges — which are important, don’t get me wrong,” Kilmer said, “but addressing issues related to salmon recovery and Puget Sound restoration and climate change, I think those are wise investments that are not just a win-win, they’re like a quadruple win.”
As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Kilmer said his goal is to put federal grant programs for Puget Sound “on steroids.” Existing programs need increased funding, he said. At the same time, he added, new programs are needed to face the challenges of an unprecedented public health and economic crisis.
Kilmer is well known in Congress for pushing Puget Sound issues, like his predecessor former Rep. Norm Dicks who retired in 2012. In fact, Kilmer tells the story of his first meeting with the House Appropriations Committee, when new members were introduced to the rest of the panel.
“The introduction I received was, ‘This is Derek Kilmer, and he’s here for the fish.’” Kilmer recalled. “That is certainly my focus, particularly on the Interior and Environment Subcommittee.”
Kilmer said he is working on a jobs bill involving the Army Corps of Engineers that would involve “coastal resilience design and construction.” Grants would be provided to state, local and tribal governments for projects that mitigate for climate change and ecosystem losses, with an emphasis on “nature-based infrastructure.”
Innovative ideas are needed that will work tomorrow as well as today, Kilmer said. Solutions must not leave people or communities behind.
“Our economic-recovery strategy must prioritize our climate and environment,” he said, “and the only way we can succeed is to do it together.”
Puget Sound Days on the Hill: future meetings
Puget Sound Days on the Hill is scheduled to run each Friday through May 21. The next meeting on Friday will include Sen. Patty Murray, U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Issaquah, and possibly one other speaker. Anyone can register to attend the online conference free of charge on the Puget Sound Partnership’s webpage. Questions can be submitted in writing in advance of the each meeting.