poisoned waters

Land Use: Q&A with Ron Sims

As executive of King County, Wash., Ron Sims spearheaded the county's 2004 Critical Areas Ordinance, which restricted development in rural areas to protect water quality. A major piece of the ordinance, dictating how much of a person's property could be cleared of vegetation, was overturned in court in 2008, and in March 2009, the state Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the decision. Below are excerpts of a conversation FRONTLINE had with Sims about the ordinance, land use, and why he thinks we need to rethink our environmental laws. In February 2009, Sims was nominated to serve as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Talk to me for a moment about the Critical Areas Ordinance that was passed in 2004. What are the goals of that ordinance? ...

... What we find is that when we look at land-use patterns and when you look at the impact of any kind of density on streams and on lakes and on Puget Sound, there is no distinction between an area that may want to call itself a suburb and an area that may call itself a major metropolitan area like Seattle. It's all the same, and it functions the same way. So we have a Growth Management Act that says ... you're going to have more density [in those urban areas] and that other areas are going to discourage growth, and we're going to try to preserve a rural way of life, our agricultural lands and our forest lands. ... Ninety-six percent of all of our growth is occurring inside cities, only 4 percent outside, and that's pretty remarkable. ...

How does the King County Critical Areas Ordinance address the stormwater problem?

... In rural areas it says we're not going to allow the development you want, so that we have less impervious surface, less asphalt and concrete and roof, and we allow nature to do what nature does, which is to absorb this so it doesn't migrate into the streams and the rivers and then ultimately into the Puget Sound. ...

[If it's the water in urban areas that's dirty, why does your plan restrict development in rural areas?]

... It is true when you get in urban areas, the water's much dirtier, but we're not drinking the urban-area water. The water system is upstream; it's in those farms. And we're simply saying that we were going to ensure that the water quality was better as it went through those rural areas and would not be contaminated by the time it got into our more urban areas. ...

You're saying more forested areas, more bushes, more grass, more fields upcountry means more water going into the soil, not running off with all its pollutants and bad effects?

That is correct. And the interesting thing about nature is nature cleans, so that the water that does finally get into those streams has been cleaned by all of those buffers, the natural vegetation, the trees, the grasses, the functioning of the land underneath, because it's not covered by concrete, not covered by roofs and building structures. When you do that, you degrade the water substantially, and the impact upon the Puget Sound is basically more of an urban phenomenon. We didn't want to see those [rural] areas converted. We didn't want to see the problems in our urban areas visited [on] our rural areas. ...

[What realities do people need to accept to make a plan like this work?]

... If we can get people to think differently about what their personal impact is on the Puget Sound, we can recover it. And it means that we're going to have to accept that we're going to have to protect forests, ... and that when I'm in an urban area, we're going to have very rigorous standards for stormwater control and combined sewer overflow systems and very aggressive regulations to keep the flows off impervious surfaces like streets and sidewalks from getting into the Sound. And it's going to be very costly. ... We're talking a couple of billion dollars just in Seattle. ...

[How did you determine how much of a certain area can be cleared of trees, how much can be covered with impervious surface before you start to see damage to the water?]

... We do it on a watershed-wide basis, and we measure performance by using engineering, by looking at the flows of water, by looking at the contaminants in those waters, by looking at the topography of the land. And you can lay out a formula that says here's what a 20 percent impervious surface does, but here's what a 10 percent does. ...

King County has a lot of experience in watersheds, but the bulk of our work is done by scientists, and it's peer-reviewed. ... We expected to be sued, and so we wanted to make sure that the science of our decisions would well support the adoption of the ordinance by the county council and my recommendation to it. ...

What do you say to critics who say: "Look, they've taken my land, in effect. I can only use a third of my land. Two-thirds of my land I've got to leave in forest and bushes"?

No one has lost the value or use of their land. ... What people have found [is] that we're not going to allow them to develop their land in terms of building a lot of homes on it, but the use of their land they still enjoy to this day. ...

[What is unique about this forest protection plan, compared to our country's traditional environmental regulations?]

... One of the things that we have found with the Sound is that the whole enforcement mechanism -- and we've been talking about it in terms of the critical areas ordinance -- applies by county, by county, by county. Our whole effort is balkanized and is not coordinated.

But remember, the Puget Sound is a single ecosystem. It starts at the mountains, where [we have] the rivers, where we have the glaciers. It flows into Puget Sound. ... You can't recover the Puget Sound under the existing enforcement structures in the United States today. ...

... Do we need a new push and a new bunch of legislation?

... It is remarkable for me ... [that] the same structure of law that was passed in 1972 is the structure that myself as county executive is required to work with. That is maddening. You would assume over time, just through learning processes for knowing what works and what doesn't work, that somebody would have modified their approach. They didn't. The law became the Holy Grail. ...

Our goals became, "Can we get the water cleaner?," not "Can we recover the ecosystem?" And that's what we lack today, is an ecosystem approach, and it requires us to confidently make changes in the Clean Water Act approaches and other [regulatory approaches]. ... If it doesn't change, all the work we're going to do on stormwater, on preservation of forests will not recover that Sound, and I'll be 80 years old when the sign goes up and says, "You lost it." My grandkids are going to look up at me and say: ... "Your generation, you lost it. You weren't willing to step up and save it." ...

If the Washington Supreme Court upholds this appeals court ruling, what's the impact on the ability of jurisdictions, whether state agencies or counties or cities, to implement environmental regulations?

If the Supreme Court upholds it, and the Legislature doesn't correct it, it would mean that the general approaches for the application of environmental laws in the state would have to be done on a parcel-by-parcel basis. ... It will be the abandonment of everything that this state has voted on consistently, which is they want environmental protection here.

posted april 21, 2009

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