PUGET SOS brings new funding and a federal makeover


Recently passed federal legislation has increased funding to protect Puget Sound while also changing the way ecosystem recovery efforts are organized. The legislation includes key provisions of the PUGET SOS Act and establishes a national office for Puget Sound recovery based at the Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle.

The end of 2022 marked a seismic shift for Puget Sound recovery efforts. Over the course of less than a week in late December, two landmark pieces of legislation were signed and enacted by President Biden.

One of them, known informally as the omnibus appropriations package increased federal money for the Puget Sound Geographic Program by 57%, adding more than $19 million dollars to its yearly budget. The other, the National Defense Authorization Act, established a National Puget Sound Office at the EPA that will have long-lasting impacts on the way that money — and other future money — is spent.

To regular observers of Puget Sound policy, the results of the legislation will sound familiar. The outcomes include key provisions of the PUGET SOS Act, originally sponsored by Reps. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, and Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor in 2015 and since championed by the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus.

That bill, the title of which stands for Promoting United Government Efforts To Save Our Sound, was later put forward by Kilmer and Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Olympia, and had been pending for years before finding its way into law in the new legislation in December.

“When President Biden signed our PUGET SOS Act into law, that moment marked progress that was years in the making,” said Kilmer last month. “And it demonstrates the federal government stepping up and treating Puget Sound the same way other bodies of water of national significance are treated.”

Now, with essential elements of PUGET SOS solidly in place, here are some of the ways that these developments will fundamentally reshape federal environmental protection in Puget Sound.

The appropriations package

The boost in funding from the appropriations package, known officially as the Consolidated Appropriations Act, brings the annual budget for the Puget Sound Geographic Program to $54 million dollars. That’s almost twice what the budget was four years ago, and it marks a 57% increase over last year.

While there have been no announcements about how the extra money will be spent, the funding model for the program is explained in detail by the EPA on its website. There, the agency says congressional funds will be “used to help implement Washington’s Puget Sound Action Agenda using cooperative agreements with designated state agencies, local and tribal governments, universities and non-governmental organizations.”

According to Ahren Stroming, Special Assistant for Federal Affairs with the Puget Sound Partnership, there is speculation that the additional $19 million dollars will be distributed through a similar process to one seen in previous years. In that scenario, grant money for research and restoration would be distributed in support of a series of ecosystem-wide strategies focusing on habitat recovery, the removal of toxics and the recovery of shellfish beds.

“I would expect — and I’ll caveat this by saying it’s up to EPA exactly what this looks like — but I would expect the vast majority of that pot of additional money to go to the three Strategic Initiatives: the Habitat, Shellfish, and Stormwater Strategic Initiatives,” Stroming told the Puget Sound Partnership’s magazine Making Waves. “All those programs have requests for proposals (RFPs). They solicit grant proposals for projects that advance those elements of Puget Sound recovery every year. So, we’ll be able to fund more of those projects. There are always projects that don’t get funded. There are project applicants who don’t apply for grants because they know there’s not enough funding. Now there will be — significantly more.”

That increase in funding is a big change from the situation several years ago when the Trump administration proposed massive funding cuts to the Puget Sound program. It also comes amidst other recent boosts in funding for the environment such as last year’s federal infrastructure package and the Inflation Reduction Act. Those large-scale acts are expected to leverage additional billions of dollars to tackle sweeping problems like climate change and will support major developments in green infrastructure that will extend to Puget Sound and the rest of the country (see our previous blog “Event celebrates the anniversary of the Clean Water Act and new funding for Puget Sound”).

A National Puget Sound Office

As significant as the new Puget Sound funding is, some of the biggest long-term changes will come out of the National Defense Authorization Act. While that act was not as dollar focused as the appropriations package, it strengthened Puget Sound’s financial footing by creating a national office for Puget Sound recovery based at the Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle. That act locks in baseline funding and elevates Puget Sound to the status of other nationally significant ecosystem recovery efforts such as Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes.

The new office “will be a durable resource for federal attention and investment in Puget Sound recovery going forward,” Stroming told Making Waves. “It ensures that we don’t have to fight every year to make sure the federal government understands the importance of Puget Sound recovery. They’re acknowledging it and creating an office at EPA to work on it. That office will be able to receive appropriations in the future.”

More federal cooperation

The legislation also invigorates The Puget Sound Federal Leadership Task Force, which leverages the resources of a broad team of federal agencies. Formerly a voluntary association of federal partners created in 2016 near the end of the Obama administration, the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act makes the task force central to federal Puget Sound recovery efforts.

Among its roles will be “promoting the efficient use of government resources” and “facilitating the resolution of interagency conflicts associated with such restoration and protection among such agencies.” Science is called out specifically in the general duties of the task force, which will “provide advice and support on scientific and technical issues and act as a forum for the exchange of scientific information about the Puget Sound.” Scientific monitoring of Puget Sound’s health as an ecosystem is also listed as a priority, and the task force is required to “inventory Federal environmental research and monitoring programs related to the Puget Sound and provide such inventory to the Puget Sound National Estuary Program Management Conference.”

Members of the task force include: the National Forest Service, Natural Resource Conservation Service, NOAA, Army Corps of Engineers, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Navy, Coast Guard, FEMA, Bureau of Indian Affairs, USFWS, USGS, National Park Service, Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration and “other Federal agencies, programs, and initiatives as the other members of the Puget Sound Federal Leadership Task Force determines necessary,” according to the mandate. The task force will be chaired by representatives from NOAA, EPA, and the Army Corps of Engineers.

A commitment to the Action Agenda

The Puget Sound Partnership will have a role as a leader of a State Advisory Committee within the task force. The legislation specifies that the committee “shall consist of up to seven members designated by the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership, in consultation with the governor of Washington, who will represent Washington State Agencies that have significant roles and responsibilities related to the restoration and protection of Puget Sound.”

Much of the work of the task force will complement or reinforce actions currently underway by the Puget Sound Partnership including the advancement of the Action Agenda and the monitoring of Puget Sound’s health through a biennial report. According to the legislation, the report will be prepared by the task force in collaboration with the Puget Sound Tribal Management Conference and the State Advisory Committee.

As the task force ramps up, it will be required to meet within 180 days of the passage of the legislation, a date roughly prior to the end of June. The group will then have a mandate to adopt a formal action plan within five years.

Related links:

An interview with Ahren Stroming of the Puget Sound Partnership with more information about the legislation.

The Puget Sound-related sections of the Defense Authorization Act.

A summary of the omnibus appropriations bill prepared by the Senate Appropriations Committee.