Saving Puget Sound: A Conservation Strategy for the 21st Century

Chapter 12. Water Quality: Inseparable from the Land Around It

doi: https://doi.org/10.47886/9781888569834.ch12

The objective of [the Clean Water Act] is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters. [Clean Water Act, U.S. Code, volume 33, section 1251(a)]

Laws regarding water quality and water withdrawals have generally developed separately from each other—so much so that Washington is unusual among western states in placing responsibility for both issues in the same agency, the Washington Department of Ecology (WDOE; Reisner and Bates 1990; Pharris and McDonald 2000). In contrast to the federal government’s general deference to state law for water withdrawals, the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) is the fundamental framework for most state laws protecting water quality, in Washington and elsewhere. Since the CWA was passed in 1972, it has helped bring about enormous reductions in pollution across the country, particularly from industries and sewage plants. Largely as a result, waters near the most intensely developed marine and river shorelines of the Puget Sound region are generally much cleaner and healthier today than they were 30 years ago.

Nationally and regionally, the most serious water pollution problems that remain are the most intractable. The large majority relate to stormwater runoff from land that humans have altered. Effective solutions must typically address combinations of issues, including land use, development practices, transportation systems, and the daily choices of thousands or even millions of people (whether to fix leaks in car engines, use fertilizer or herbicides, pick up pet wastes, etc.). Solutions are generally best crafted for whole watersheds. Where should growth go? Where should technical assistance and education programs be targeted? Where is it most important to retain or restore native vegetation? Watershed planning groups across most of the region are debating these issues, in attempts to meet requirements of the CWA, the Endangered Species Act (ESA), state laws, and local and regional goals. Participating organizations—which commonly include local governments, state and federal agencies, businesses, community groups, and Indian tribes—individually can address some of the issues. But the watershed groups themselves generally have no authority to enforce their recommendations and little, if any, money to assist implementation. Regional processes to coordinate land-use decisions were similarly hamstrung before the Growth Management Act (see Chapter 10). Just as the legislature ultimately gave such authorities to regional planning bodies for land use, it may give watershed groups more authority and funding as the problems they are trying to address become more visible and urgent. In fact, since the futures of water and land are inseparable, recommendations of watershed planning must ultimately be embodied in growth management plans and land-use decisions to succeed.