Planning by Watersheds to Protect and Restore Puget Sound

By Colin Hume & Doug Peters  

The Puget Sound region in Washington State is a wonderful place to live, with an excellent quality of life and good job opportunities that will continue to draw many more people to the area in the coming years.  Unfortunately, the waters of Puget Sound, along with the surrounding watersheds and greater ecosystem, which many would consider to be the centerpiece to our quality of life, are stressed and in environmental decline. Human activities are degrading fundamental ecosystem processes and habitats, and state and federally listed species are not recovering according to existing restoration plans. Maintaining a high quality of life requires us to plan well for the future population influx; both in accommodating more people in existing urban areas and in protecting the rural areas that support many of the important remaining ecosystem processes and habitats.

In an effort to be smart about how we plan for the future in Puget Sound, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Estuary Program is funding projects through the Watershed Protection and Restoration Program. These projects emphasize planning for land use to direct development pressure to areas which minimize impacts to ecosystem processes and habitats, and focus public resources into those areas which can maximize community investments. To increase the effectiveness of local planning processes, a key part of this strategy is to support the use of readily available geospatial data and decision support tools at a watershed or landscape scale. Organizing our planning activities around spatial units such as watersheds facilitates, and in many cases necessitates, cross-jurisdictional collaboration.  Improving our recognition of and communication about those watersheds and areas critical to key ecosystem processes and habitats should accrue significant environmental benefits in the long term, as we account for those processes and human impacts to them at appropriate scales. 

There are certainly challenges and risks to planning at a watershed scale.  In some cases these geospatial assessments and tools will indicate areas which are of high value to the ecosystem but overlap with our existing Urban Growth Areas, and where infrastructure investments have been extensive.  Despite this, there are still many opportunities to affect future growth plans by using this science in a way that recognizes these investments and provides meaningful and feasible alternatives.  Planning by watersheds will increase demand for cross-jurisdictional coordination, which can come with added costs that few local governments can afford.  In the twelve Puget Sound counties, collaborating jurisdictions using this scientific information will stand a much better chance of implementing sustainable development that protects the environment that we all cherish.

In an effort to mitigate the cost of planning in a way that accounts for watershed processes, the EPA has funded the Puget Sound Watershed Characterization Project. The Washington State Departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife have jointly produced a series of geospatial-based indices of relative value and degradation to water flow and water quality processes, and to fish and wildlife habitats.  These are coarse-scale comparisons of watersheds which are intended to help prioritize investments in restoration and protection activities, and inform which areas of the Puget Sound are most appropriate to focus additional development pressure.  The indices have helped inform planning processes such as Shoreline Master Programs, Comprehensive Plan updates and subarea planning; as well as stormwater retrofit, transfer of development rights (TDR) and wetland mitigation plans, among other applications. 

The next two newsletters will describe applications of the Puget Sound Watershed Characterization Project in two projects; one focused on developing an In-Lieu-Fee wetland mitigation strategy in the watersheds draining to Hood Canal and the other developing a watershed plan for the City of Duvall to support its Comprehensive Plan update. 

For more information on the Puget Sound Watershed Characterization Project, contact Colin Hume at the Department of Ecology, [email protected], and go to the following links:


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