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Originally published Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 4:03 PM

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Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Science and policy changes are needed to rescue Puget Sound

Cleaning up Puget Sound is directly linked to the health of Washington citizens and a robust economy. The Legislature needs to know there is broad public support to clean up the Sound. The next big target is the pollution in stormwater runoff, a byproduct of how we live and developed the land.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

COUPEVILLE — Lawmakers agonizing over the expense and complexity of cleaning up Puget Sound need to know their efforts are backed by legions of eager citizens already hard at work on the challenge.

Hundreds turned out on a brisk Saturday morning for Sound Waters 2010, presented by WSU Island County Beach Watchers.

A six-page list tallied those who led the daylong program of seminars spread across the combined campus of Coupeville High School and Middle School. The aggregation of experts and topics was impressive. So was the overflow crowd that paid to learn more and find out how to help.

Restoration of Puget Sound is an imperative for Washington's environment, health and the economy. We live, work and play around a glorious body of water, and our intimate proximity is the essence of the dilemma. All the easily identified pollution sources are either under control or on the radar. The rest come from how we live and develop the land.

Cleanup confronts a nasty trifecta: industrial and agricultural effluent, human waste and stormwater runoff. The first two are works in progress, but the latter scours and flushes everything.

Our Northwest rain washes roads, parking lots, driveways and lawns. The residue of modern life ends up in the Sound with toxic effect.

Gov. Chris Gregoire pledged in 2006 to make Puget Sound "fishable, diggable and swimmable" by 2020. The initiative was launched via the Puget Sound Partnership, a lean agency created to ensure tasks and duties assigned to state departments get done, and to help local and county government.

An outside science panel is organizing the technical framework to link actions and results. The panel is still debating what indicators to watch — coho salmon, eelgrass or any one of dozens proposed. They will establish benchmarks for analysis and measure progress.

"Addressing environmental issues at the ecosystem scale will require addressing social, economic, energy, transportation and other issues as well," a panel report noted.

Here is how that translates in Olympia. Gregoire on Wednesday proposed a revenue package that includes a bump in the Model Toxic Control Act tax created by voters. Budget estimates predict raising that existing pollution tax from 0.7 to 2 percent would generate a total of about $225 million annually. Early on, about $150 million goes to the general fund, and the rest to stormwater accounts.

Over time, the balance shifts. The new money will restore a fund that has already suffered raids and it bolsters a general fund that also pays for stormwater programs by the state Department of Transportation and local government.

Chances are drivers will not see the change at the pump. For a product whose price dips and soars, a few pennies per gallon will not be noticed. Besides, the money stays here for a demonstrable good.

Other bills reveal the complexity of the problem. Senate Bill 6557 limits use of copper and other substances in vehicle brake pads. Copper residue in the water interferes with the ability of juvenile salmon to sniff out predators. The legislation has long lead times to accommodate industry. Good science with a plan.

Another bill responds to a national planning effort to anticipate a variety of offshore uses — fish farms, wind farms, oil drilling and tribal rights. Think marine zoning.

One smart bill that did not survive legislative deadlines was a medicine-return program that created a statewide system for environmentally safe disposal of opiates, prescription drugs and over-the-counter products. It was a sane option to flushing pills down the toilet or having them filched by prescription-drug abusers of all ages. It had broad support — law enforcement, drugstores and successful programs in Snohomish and Clark counties — but could not overcome Big Pharma.

The Legislature faces big decisions in a dismal economy. Raising any tax is a tough vote, but the link to a cleaner Puget Sound is real. So are other thoughtful environmental fixes.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com

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