Proposed EPA Budget Cuts Would Devastate Puget Sound
By Eric Swenson
President Trump's draft Environmental Protection Agency budget, released in early March, would slash EPA's workforce by 3,000 employees (almost 20%) and its budget by more than $2 billion (25%). Funding for restoration of Puget Sound, the largest estuary by volume in the contiguous US, would go from $28 million in fiscal year 2016 to $2 million in 2018, a 93% reduction. Currently, the money is matched and goes to Native American tribes, local governments, state agencies, and non-profits.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said there may be changes in the budget, due to be sent to Congress the week of March 12. And these cuts may not be popular in Congress, which will have to sign off on the budget, a process that is likely months away. Certainly Democratic Washington state members of Congress immediately raised objections.
As reported on the Seattle P-I website, Rep. Derek Kilmer, whose district includes Hood Canal and the Olympic Peninsula, said, “On the heels of a speech in which President Trump committed to working for clean water and good jobs, this proposal would devastate efforts to restore shellfish beds, revitalize salmon runs and recover the Sound for future generations.”
Rep. Denny Heck, from a South Sound district, stressed potential costs that would accrue from losing money and seeing programs eliminated. He said, “When the federal government fails to invest in the health of critically important bodies of water like our Puget Sound, environmental problems become environmental disasters. It is in our nation's best interest to continue an adequate level of funding for Puget Sound restoration. The return on investment is strong and the price of doing nothing is costly beyond our imagination.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell argued that the Puget Sound cleanup can be defended purely on economic grounds. “From struggling salmon fisheries, declining Orca populations, and massive shellfish die-offs from ocean acidification—slashing Puget Sound recovery funding shows a blatant disregard for our environment,” said Cantwell. “A failure to confront the environmental challenge the Sound faces will have disastrous consequences for our economy.”
One agency that would be hard hit by the proposed EPA cuts is the Puget Sound Partnership (PSP). Now in its tenth year, PSP leads the region's collective effort to restore and protect Puget Sound. The Partnership created and now manages the infrastructure needed to enable and encourage partners to come together in developing and implementing priority actions to accelerate the collective effort to recover and sustain the Puget Sound. It works with hundreds of partners to mobilize action around a common agenda, advance investments in the Sound, and prioritize actions by supporting partners.
In an interview with March for Science – Seattle, PSP Executive Director Sheida Sahandy said, “Our goal as an organization right now is to simply get to the point where the rate of recovery is outpacing the rate of damage to Puget Sound.” She sketched what proposed budget cuts would mean for the Sound, saying, “We have in our region a funding structure for recovery and protection that is largely built around federal funds. They are intertwined very closely with all the recovery and protection work that happens in Puget Sound because there's a dollar-for-dollar match requirement. So all the projects that end up moving forward are essentially co-funded by local, state, or other contributions. Federal funding is integrally woven into the fabric of recovery here. The loss of those funds would have really broad, sweeping impacts on recovery here.”
Asked to give an example of programs that would be threatened, Sahandy replied, “There's a particularly effective one called the Pollution Identification and Control System Program. Part of the funds go to having landowners all over—on coastal areas and rural areas, agricultural lands—identify sources of pollution, and then with some technical support come up with the solutions. It's a very popular program. There is no enforcement end to it, it is completely voluntary, but it helps people figure out what's happening on the lands they care about and then to customize a solution that fits their needs. Of course it ends up benefiting water quality and our goals as well.
“Another example is a program through the Northwest Straits Commission that focused on removing abandoned gear from the waters of Puget Sound. The reason it mattered was that the gear—fishing nets, boats that have been abandoned, etc.—was trapping and killing marine animals, such as seals, porpoises, salmon, and crab. Between 2002 and 2016, the program removed derelict gear from 5,900 sites. It restored 870 acres of marine habitat and prevented an estimated $437,000 loss of crabbing income due to death in the gear.”
The Washington State Department of Health is another agency that would feel a loss of federal funds deeply. Liz Coleman, Communications Lead for the Department's Environmental Public Health Division, also spoke with March for Science – Seattle. The division works primarily with county and municipal governments, other state agencies, such as the Department of Ecology, and many of Puget Sound's 39 Native-American nations to improve water quality and restore shellfish beds for commercial and recreational use.
Coleman said, “Since 2011 the Department of Health has received about $26 million in EPA grants, primarily aimed at the Puget Sound. We've been able to leverage federal dollars and turn them into about $100 million. So it's actually one of those programs that pays real dividends. One of our biggest goals has been to increase the number of harvestable shellfish acreage. Just since 2007 we've increased those acres by 4,803. There's about another 6,000 we'd like to get to by 2020, but we've made some pretty impressive gains by opening up areas that were really contaminated, where there was no shellfish harvesting. So those are the things I think we would potentially feel the most in this state because I think everybody knows that one of the things Washington really is known for is our great water quality and our shellfish. The proposed budget cuts would definitely put them in danger.”
Cuts to the EPA budget aren't the only grief headed to our region. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with major facilities in Seattle, faces a 17% cut. Its Sea Grant program, which supports coastal research and action conducted through 33 university programs across the country, including the University of Washington, faces total elimination of its $76 million budget. And the EPA is rumored to be ready to name Doug Ericksen to head its Seattle-based office for Region 10, serving Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and 271 Native Tribes. Ericksen, now directing communications for the EPA transition team, is a member of the Washington state senate (R-Whatcom County) and an outspoken climate change denier and opponent of EPA regulation.
Whether all or even most of these threatened moves come to pass remains to be seen, but it is clear that Puget Sound faces dire jeopardy.