Sustaining Puget Sound

Our region is defined by water. The Puget Sound Basin consists of all the land, rivers, lakes, and streams that drain into coastal waters. The interactions between people, animals, plants, and multitudes of microorganisms, within a complex hydrologic system (the continuous movement of water on, above, and below the surface) define the ecology of our region. Natural environments, in order to stay productive and healthy, are limited by their carrying capacity – a maximum limit that any given environment can support without detrimental effects. The Puget Sound Partnership estimates that by 2025 over five million people will be living in the Basin. In addition to carrying capacity, natural systems need to maintain a specific balance. If that balance is impacted or if the carrying capacity is exceeded, natural systems begin to deteriorate.

Pollution caused by human activity or contamination from natural events such as volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, or forest fires can affect the balance of natural systems and their ability to repair or restore themselves to their original healthy states. In the wake of the industrial revolution, we have seen great impacts from human activity: impacts to air quality from burning fossil fuels, impacts to water quality from dumping human-made waste into our waterways, and impacts to our natural forests and grasslands from poorly-planned development.

Many of the original impacts were unintended. As a global society, we simply did not understand the effect of our actions. Many great societies have perished for their ignorance – the Roman Empire, the Easter Island society, among others. In this day and age, however, we understand more about the effect of our actions; specifically, we understand the effects that pollution, population, and poor-planning has on our planet.

One solution to combat these effects is environmental stewardship – the notion of protecting and being responsible for our natural areas and its inhabitants.

In a recent report on Puget Sound Ecosystem Indicators, the Environmental Protection Agency proposes: “We are at the cusp of making historic decisions regarding the nature of how we grow in this region. Will we pave over our field of dreams and let species come to the brink of peril, losing economic opportunity and good human health? Or will we create a positive vision of our future by mapping out growth strategies, learning to be more elegant with design and function so we can save the things worth saving, while providing opportunities to ‘do well by doing good’?”

The answer to that question can and should be answered by each inhabitant of the Puget Sound – that means each of us. We are the answer to those questions. Through our purchases, by voting, by speaking out on issues, by educating ourselves and our community we choose the answers. We choose our future.

Making the Connections

The EPA Indicator Report helps to make the connections between the natural environment, the built environment, and our personal environment by looking at one of our local treasures, the orca, to help us understand how everything we do affects something else, no matter how isolated it seems. In the 1990’s Puget Sound orca populations declined. Most of the resident orcas eat salmon as their primary food source. Puget Sound Chinook salmon have been found to be heavily contaminated with chemicals, including flame retardants and plasticizers called phthalates. Other salmon populations are also dwindling because their habitat has been destroyed or degraded due to development practices (paving our surfaces and fragmenting our forest areas). Many of our resident fish species are also impacted by the use and disposal of specific chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides. This means that the fertilizer you use on your lawn and in the neighborhood you live in, or at the local manufacturing plant, finds its way into the local creeks and streams, flows to larger lakes and eventually into the Puget Sound. It then accumulates in salmon, which passes these chemicals through a process known as bioaccumulation into our resident orca populations. The accumulation of chemicals in the whale’s food supply, coupled with pollution from stormwater running off of our built environment, and noise pollution from commercial and recreational boats, has led to the decline of this iconic species and placed them on the Endangered Species list.

Understanding What to Look For

In order to sustain Puget Sound, there are indicators of the environmental health of the watershed that can help us know how we’re doing managing this vast resource. For one thing, having healthy wildlife populations, including shellfish and other marine species indicates the overall health of our environment (See Bees, Slugs, & Frogs article in the SLG). We can also look at the rate of urbanization and ebb and flow of our forest areas. Water quality determines the health of all our natural systems and greatly affects our own personal health and even our region’s economic health (see Natural Capital article in the SLG). Finally the volume of waste going to landfills affects climate, which in turn can affect weather and air quality (see Climate Change article).

What You Can Do

All is not lost! We still have a great opportunity and a greater responsibility to preserve and protect the natural resources of our region. The articles in the Built Environment and the Personal Environment sections outline strategies, propose actions, and provide resources to let you know what you can do to sustain our Puget Sound.

By Cate O’dahl

From EPS Report:

(Note: this article was originally published in the Sustainable Living Guide 2014, in Seattle Natural Awakenings, February 2014)

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