A year ago last summer, all of us who call this corner of the planet home were devastated by footage of a mother orca carrying her dead calf on a journey of grief across the Salish Sea.
This tragic scene was a visceral reminder of what science has been telling us: That these iconic, intelligent mammals who have thrived in Puget Sound since time immemorial could soon be lost forever.
It is unconscionable that our children — like my own daughter, who just started kindergarten — may well grow up witnessing the last of the southern resident orcas struggle, starve and fade into extinction.
We have the power to stop it. The question is whether we have the will.
To ensure the survival of Puget Sound orcas, and the salmon they need for nourishment, we must deepen and transform our approach to protecting clean water and habitat — to heed the science and focus relentlessly on outcomes — before it is too late.
Since the late 1950s, under the leadership of the late Jim Ellis and other visionaries, we cleaned up Lake Washington and built a regional wastewater system that today treats more than 66 billion gallons annually — that’s wastewater from toilets and sinks, but also stormwater that falls on roofs and pavements, which contains pollutants such as motor oil, metals and pesticides.
Over the next decade, King County will invest about $6 billion in water-quality improvements — including $4 billion in investments largely directed and prioritized by federal and state regulations and paid for by local ratepayers. This necessary work includes upgrading pumps, backup generators and electrical equipment at our five treatment plants and 47 pump stations.
Driven by current regulations, the balance of $2 billion in ratepayer funds is set to be invested to capture and treat about 13 billion gallons of stormwater that finds its way into the wastewater system, only a slight increase from the 12.4 billion gallons today. But an additional 118 billion gallons of contaminated rainwater never enters our system, flowing directly into the Green River, Lake Washington, Puget Sound and other waterways — slowly poisoning them.
We need to rethink how to spend this $2 billion, because our water-quality scientists suggest that we could get a much bigger environmental benefit in the shortest time if we take on the stormwater currently cascading down our gutters.
That’s what my “Clean Water, Healthy Habitat” initiative is all about.
We are exploring whether we could tie stormwater drains into our wastewater system, so more stormwater is treated at sewage plants when we have capacity. And perhaps we build more facilities, like our new Georgetown wet-weather plant, that specifically treat stormwater.
Whatever the final plan, it begins with science: devising environmental tests and modeling that help us make the right investments.
And it begins with a new mindset: orienting our work to the outcomes we all want to achieve rather than focusing solely on regulatory compliance.
Changing how we do business can be uncomfortable, particularly when it means questioning decades of tried-and-true practice. The hard truth: We could be fully compliant with all current regulations, yet fail to save the salmon and orcas.
Here’s the good news: Our region has the means, the know-how and, I have to believe, the will to save the Sound.
Being one of the most prosperous and progressive regions in the nation means we can accomplish things others can’t. King County government has the dedicated employees, the technical expertise and the strong partnerships to achieve ambitious goals. And we have a strong mandate from the people of King County to protect the places we cherish and restore what’s been lost.
The only thing we don’t have is time. Not a minute to waste.
My frustration with the slow pace of progress is shared by our partners, including tribes and the environmental community.
We as a local government — and all governments — have an obligation to transform our operations and investments to do the most good possible with the resources at hand, and to preserve and restore the Salish Sea.
We must do all that it will take to protect what we love about this place, restore what has been lost and leave our corner of the planet better than we found it.