The Political Machine

Budd Inlet lies at the southernmost end of Puget Sound. The views are impressive. To the south Olympia and the State Capitol Dome are reflected in the bay’s waters; to the north the snow capped Olympic Range; to the east, Mount Rainier.

A hundred years ago the richness and abundance of wildlife would have been astonishing. Fifty years ago we would still have seen thousands of sand lance, surf smelt and other fish. Twenty years ago we would have seen hundreds of grebes, scoters, loons and other water birds. Today in Budd Inlet we have medusa swarms and water quality akin to a septic tank. The last twenty years, under the current regulatory caldron, have been a swan song. The problem is system-wide and runs across all levels of government.

Conservation is an attempt to prevent future declines, the implication being that we are satisfied with current conditions. On the other hand restoration is an attempt to reverse declines. Conservation can originate at a State or Federal level. The system dictates that restoration will only begin at a local level and there are few economic incentives at the local level to initiate restoration. There are seemingly endless economic incentives to do otherwise.

The State sets a goal or limitation that gets weakened through political compromise. That number becomes the target, to be reached and not exceeded. Given the influence of industry and development the question to local jurisdictions becomes: What can we get away with?

In December of 2022 the city of Tumwater issued an environmental decision on the South Sound Commerce Center, a 480,000-square-foot warehouse proposed by a company called Panattoni on Port of Olympia owned land. A total of 200 acres will be paved and developed. Concurrently, the Port of Olympia is hoping to sign a 75 year lease with Swire Coca Cola on 95 acres of nearby land, which will also be paved and developed.

Rather than an Environmental Impact Statement there’s a Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance. In support of this MDNS Thurston County provided the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) to “facilitate growth and economic development.” The HCP will limit liability under the federal Endangered Species Act and increase predictability and local control. This is important because a small gopher at the site is threatened with extinction. (1)

The 380 page HCP is built around a template. One need only fill in the blanks. There’s everything from topography and geology to bridge maintenance and beaver dam management. There’s development potential and vague references to conservation measures.

Applicants can secure a “Certificate of Inclusion” by paying a mitigation fee, dedicating land, or purchasing credits from an independent mitigation bank and then can continue with their “covered activity” risk free. Thurston County can also pay mitigation fees to offset activities. The average annual cost to implement the HCP is estimated at $4,171,966, which includes land acquisition, enhancement, management, and maintenance. Exactly who will pay for what is a bit vague.

The County considered the do nothing alternative, the only alternative that would avoid impacts to the pocket gopher and “decided not to select this alternative since it would strongly limit economic growth, development, and sustainability.” Sustainability?

The HCP’s Plan Area covers the entirety of Thurston County and several species including frogs and butterflies. What really prompted this HCP was a specific gopher in one specific area. Expanding the scope and range of study diluted the effort.

“The landscape-scale projection of estimated impacts assumes commercial/industrial development will affect 100% of habitat within a parcel based on aerial photography review of existing documents. Best Management Practices in the HCP will promote avoidance and minimization of direct impacts to the covered species.” How do we intend to minimize the impacts of paving everything?

Mitigation mechanisms in lieu of land dedication are comprised of “habitat mitigation credits”. These are described as new reserves, land easements and enhanced existing preserves which are expected to provide permanent habitat protection, a site management plan (another template) and financial assurances to fund monitoring and maintenance.

The guarantee is to not destroy one location in exchange for the right to destroy another. The method is plug-and-grunt templates. If the Habitat Conservation Plan were science based it would have begun with an observation — pocket gophers that rely on the site are threatened with extinction — then moved to a hypothesis — we can create habitat for pocket gophers elsewhere as mitigation. Then would come the test. We’d actually try it. Only then would we arrive at a conclusion. None of this has happened. There is no synthesis of ideas.

A three part front page Seattle Post Intelligencer series in September of 2005 characterizes Habitat Conservation Plans as tools of extinction. Other studies have arrived at similar a conclusion, the following from the journal Science.

“Abstract: The number of threatened and endangered (T&E) species in the United States is increasing monthly and critical habitat is constantly being destroyed. The number of newly listed T&E species greatly outweighs the number recovered from threatened extinction, and the federal and state governments demonstrate little desire to step in on behalf of species at risk. These ecological crises faced by endangered species (1) may be exacerbated by the application of one aspect of the Endangered Species Act (ESA)—Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs). Many T&E species will be at a crossroads over the next few years and the strength and use of the ESA will determine their fate.” (2)

Meanwhile…the County is assembling updates to the Shoreline Master Program (SMP). Shoreline buffers, the distance between water and development, are currently set at fifty feet. This is supposed to fulfill a mandate to “do no further harm” and “take a precautionary approach when developing along marine shorelines to prevent further, irreparable damage”. (3) (4)

Actual science tells us that ecological buffers in nearshore areas span varying widths. Estuarine tide flats and salt marsh in Budd Inlet would in places require over a thousand feet to be 80% effective. The current fifty feet isn’t even a buffer. (5)

The County’s SMP claims to protect shorelines, ensuring their ability to: “remove sediment, nutrients and toxic compounds before they enter the water”; provide “habitat for fish and wildlife”; “maintain water temperatures vital to fish and other marine organisms’ survival”; and “promote preservation and restoration of ecological areas.” How? Where?

To the question “Are Shoreline Environmental Designations (SEDs) based on Science?” the answer is: “Yes. Thurston County used aerial photographs, site visits, and other data to guide the proposed SEDs.” What data? We should at least get a summary. “Thorough studies were done to ensure that no net loss of shoreline ecological function occurs through time.” What studies?

“We’re evaluating a site based on whether it has characteristics of high-quality habitat and/or minimal shoreline modification”. In other words, the baseline is what exists today, in a damaged state. If we truly care, a site should be evaluated on how physical parameters are impacting chemical and biological parameters. Federal law requires that in a damaged water body like Budd Inlet restoration must at least be on the table in every consideration.

The SMP claims to protect shorelines, ensuring their ability remove “sediment, nutrients and toxic compounds before they enter the water.” How? It claims to “provide habitat for fish and wildlife”. For what creature is a fifty foot setback on top of a pile of rock habitat? It claims to “reduce shoreline erosion”. How is that a good thing in feeder bluffs? It will “maintain water temperatures vital to fish and other marine organisms’ survival”. How? Where? The SMP claims to promote “preservation and restoration of ecological areas”. Where? What on earth are we talking about?

As to whether Shoreline Environmental Designations (SEDs) are based on science the answer is: “Yes. Thurston County used aerial photographs, site visits, and other data to guide the proposed SEDs. Thorough studies were done to ensure that no net loss of shoreline ecological function occurs through time.” What thorough studies?

A site is designated as developed if it “has been platted for development”. Though the site may exist in a natural state, it’s doomed if the paperwork has been done.

Community Planning & Development released a statement claiming that Olympia strives for a “healthy, inclusive and sustainable economic ecosystem.” Assuming that one can understand exactly what that is, words may represent reality but their use doesn’t create reality. Just saying something doesn’t make it true.

Meanwhile… “LOTT has recently completed a 10-year scientific study to assess potential risk to human and ecological health due to residual chemicals from pharmaceuticals, personal care and other products. Findings of this extensive scientific effort, referred to as the Reclaimed Water Infiltration Study (RWIS), indicate the risk to human and ecological health from residual chemicals in reclaimed water used for infiltration is low. The Study’s independent Peer Review Panel indicated the risk assessments were well designed and protective of human and ecological health.”

The LOTT Wastewater Resource Management 2050 Master Plan states that “this research effort was a point-in-time study that reflects current conditions…New regulations, particularly for PFAS chemicals, are expected at the state and federal levels, which could impact treatment requirements”. By “conditions” we mean regulations. “Many factors can, and likely will, change in the future. New regulations, particularly for PFAS chemicals, are expected at the state and federal levels.” Once again, the target is what is currently required. The risks are known, the presence of perfluorinated chemicals remains unchanged and the problem should be addressed going forward from this point in time, not when we’re required to do so.

PFAS chemicals are formed around fluorine which like chlorine and bromine falls under the category of halogens, the second from the right column on the periodic table. Some halogen based chemicals have similar characteristics — they break down slowly, they accumulate in organic tissue, they pose similar health risks in small concentrations and they can work together, amplifying the effects of each. Other examples include PCBs and dioxin. East Bay into which treated sewage will be released is recognized as a degraded water body for both. What are the cumulative effects? (6)

Meanwhile… The Port of Olympia is planning on dredging Budd Inlet. It’s called a cleanup dredge because some of the sediments are contaminated. Being a “cleanup” the State Department of Ecology will chip in on the cost. The dredging will coincidentally be done in the exact locations where we want to bring in bigger ships. The work does not target hot spots, there will be a limited effort at source control and there will be no effort to control the spread of contamination through the water column during dredging. This is navigation dredging re-named cleanup dredging, another example of equivocation.

The EPA has approved the Budd Inlet water cleanup plan. The plan sets a “total maximum daily load,” or TMDL, controlling how much nutrient pollution can enter Budd Inlet each day. Too many nutrients can cause blooms and die-offs of algae resulting in low levels of dissolved oxygen. The plan imposes new requirements on wastewater treatment plants and other sources of nutrient pollution. It’s all about controlling the sources of nutrients entering the sound.

Once again, where’s the science? Lesson one in any oceanography textbook states that physical, chemical and biological parameters are interrelated. Each body of water has a capacity beyond which nutrients cause an imbalance that results in low levels of dissolved oxygen. This capacity is largely determined by phytoplankton which consume nutrients and through photosynthesis break carbon dioxide into carbon and oxygen. The actions of phytoplankton are largely governed by physical factors, things like water depth, temperature and flow.

There have always been nutrients entering Budd Inlet. Dray animals dropped waste in the streets, salmon carcasses rotted in stream beds, bears and other animals did what animals do and untreated sewage went directly to the bay. The difference today is modifications to structure. Olympia sits on 160 miles of culverted streams. No sunlight no phytoplankton. No phytoplankton no dissolved oxygen.

Fresh water and nutrients entering a marine environment do so best in shallow waters in the presence of abundant sunlight and atmospheric oxygen. Tide flats are one of nature’s perfect designs. Budd Inlet has been dredged, armored and filled. These nearshore modifications impede estuarine circulation. Nutrients entering Budd Inlet via culverted streams discharge into a hole adjoining a big sore thumb, the port peninsula.

The plan states that the single most important action for improving water quality in Budd Inlet will be removing the Capitol Lake dam. The lowest levels of dissolved oxygen are not at the mouth of Capitol Lake but rather in East Bay at the mouth of the Moxlie/Indian Creek watershed. Why no mention of physical parameters? Removing some culverts? Restoring some nearshore? This plan ignores what would be natural, historic or restored in favor of the ever shifting baseline.

The estuary of Mission Creek, a small stream drawing into East Bay, was restored by the Port a few years ago. We should remember that the project only came about as part of a legal settlement with the Port for Clean Water Act violations. The TMDL plan only came about as a result of the EPA being sued by Northwest Environmental Advocates. The unfortunate truth seems to be that only suing works.

We are currently in the greatest mass extinction event in 65 million years, Olympia is seemingly afraid that a single effort at restoration will open a flood gate of development crushing sentiment. If the whole world managed resources with the same disregard that we see here there’d be little left. Fortunately, such is not the case. Gig Harbor to the north has restored Donkey Creek. Farther north we find urban restorations up to False Creek in downtown Vancouver. There are numerous urban restorations between. In San Francisco Bay 100,000 acres of salt marsh and tide flats have been restored.

Genetic diversity is critical to ecosystem health. The 2022 Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity adopted four goals and 23 targets for achievement by 2030, among them to have restoration completed or underway on at least 30% of degraded terrestrial, inland waters and coastal and marine ecosystems. The damage will end. The development cabal will run out of gas. There’s a growing awareness of possibilities and that awareness will continue to grow.







One thought on “The Political Machine

  1. Loved reading this
    The article raises important issues about the state of the ecosystem in Budd Inlet and the inadequacy of current regulatory measures. The call for science-based approaches to restoration and preservation is crucial, and the examples of successful restoration projects in other areas are encouraging. Overall, it highlights the urgent need for more comprehensive and effective measures to protect our natural resources.
    Eamon O’Keeffe
    Easy Landscape Gardening

    Liked by 1 person

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