Snohomish River Watershed
NOAA is cultivating partnerships in Snohomish County to organize diverse agency resources to speed local conservation efforts that sustain water supply, restore fisheries, reduce flood risks, and support agricultural production. The crux of this approach involves designing floodplains that support diverse values, including support for rural economies and protection of tribal treaty rights, while anticipating the effects of climate change. Lessons learned in the Snohomish will be applied to other watersheds in Puget Sound.
Puget Sound recovery planning accelerated following proposed listing of Chinook salmon under the Endangered Species Act in 1999. Salmon recovery, the continued work of the National Estuary Program, implementation of the Clean Water Act, and a diversity of interrelated federal and state efforts have produced a deep "paper trail" of plans, reports, analyses, and priorities. Under the Puget Sound Partnership, agencies identified shared goals, described in the Puget Sound Vital Signs. But climate change and rapid development threaten the ecosystem services that have supported communities in the Salish Sea for 5,000 years.
The Resilient Lands and Waters initiative weaves together new trends in Puget Sound ecosystem management to improve local implementation. The cornerstone is the Snohomish Sustainable Lands Strategy (SLS) which brings together tribes, agencies and farmers to develop a vision for sustainable land management in floodplains. This work is stimulated by Floodplains by Design, a new state funding source to support the kinds of multi-benefit projects SLS aims to develop. The resurgence of tribal activism under Treaty Rights at Risk pressures local, state, and federal agencies to defend the fisheries promised under U.S. treaty—fisheries now threatened by development and climate change. Treaty Rights at Risk prompted federal and state agencies to examine their business practices. NOAA, EPA and the Puget Sound Partnership convened an experiment labeled Coordinated Investment to organize agency resources so they better empower local initiative. This work builds on "Lean Management" ideals already being propagated in state government to reduce waste.
Salmon recovery exposes a "wicked problem," meaning it is complex, controversial, and resistant to change. The grave state of salmon largely results from 100 years of landscape modification. Solutions in the Snohomish include both big river engineering projects, and citizens working at a parcel scale. There are no quick fixes. Priorities are most meaningful when they describe first steps in a sustained strategy. Effective early actions restore acres, but also build social networks that strengthen future work.
Resilient Lands and Waters helped partners focus on Snohomish County as a "sand box" where we could work on institutional innovation. Snohomish County is on the cutting edge of population growth, with a strong but struggling agricultural economy, and significant but depressed wild salmon populations—the kind of place where Puget Sound salmon recovery will critically succeed or fail.
Governance experiments in Snohomish happen at two discrete levels. Within Snohomish County, the Sustainable Lands Strategy forges a shared local vision. The Sustainable Lands Strategy was convened by the Snohomish County Council to create a table for agricultural, tribal, and environmental leaders to share information and goals for ecosystem management. For locals, coordinated investment provides a "bottom-up" forum for collaboration, and to organize state and federal agency resources to support on-the-ground needs. Agency executives convened the "top down" coordinated investment work group to improve agency business practices so they empower local ecosystem efforts. This push and pull between bottom-up and top-down governance drives the Snohomish effort. Regional agencies challenge local leaders to design an exemplary local response to wicked problems. In exchange, local leaders challenge regional agency executives to align and organize their assets to empower implementation.
Dedicated staff move between local and regional arenas carrying information, questions, and ideas—interviewing agency program managers and local project developers to identify and clarify opportunities for improvement. We looked to the existing flow of resources to identify de facto priorities. We organized existing documents about fish, clean water, flooding, and agriculture, and brought together teams that cross traditional stovepipes. Through this process we have identified a set of "situations" where integrated teams not only increase ecosystem services, but also test ideas, and improve practices (see map).
In this model, opportunities are not invented at big meetings, and are often too messy to appear in agency reports that promote program budgets. Our strength has been on identifying local needs in on-the-ground situations, and finding the staff and resources to launch practical collaborations to fill those gaps. This is not a criteria-based analysis, and does not ask individual institutions to reduce their autonomy to a centralized planning, but rather mobilizes diverse partners toward shared goals. The strength of an effort comes by defining an obvious opportunity to do something of shared value—clear forward steps that advance a sustained local strategy. This opt-in process is propelled by the weight of local consensus.
- Snohomish Estuary Restoration. Large scale restoration will continue on subsided lands least valuable for agriculture. Monitoring is currently cobbled together by local staff of the Tulalip Tribes, NOAA, Snohomish County, and USGS to evaluate fish response and verify restoration hypotheses.
- On-the-ground Interagency Teams. To accelerate the rate of project implementation will require organizing agency labor in alignment with local vision. We are exploring ways to build both capacity and strategies for sustaining interagency teams, where our labor is focused on changing ecosystems, rather than writing reports.
- Integrated Project Development in the Lower Skykomish. Our next focus area is the Tualco Valley, upstream of the Snoqualmie-Skykomish confluence. This "reach-scale plan" reflects the convergence of a variety of efforts to protect agricultural lands, restore fish habitats, and develop shared objectives for landscape management (see map inset C)
- Regulatory Coordination in Agricultural Floodplains. We are building shared regulatory strategies among NOAA, US Army Corps of Engineers, State Ecology, and Fish and Wildlife, to increase dialog, and empower local conservation. These efforts are supported by increased analysis of sea-level rise impacts to low lying farm lands (see map inset B).
- Collaborative Community Engagement - Most citizens in the county don't know much about natural resource management. We are building our collective capacity to produce and share stories that capture the imagination and energy of communities that values rural economies and natural resources, but often feel excluded from government.
- National Recognition - There was a psychological effect of the Resilient Lands and Waters designation and its implicit support for long term, whole systems thinking. Local partners believed that they might be recognized and rewarded for their willingness to take on wicked problems. Sustaining and rewarding that effort is important.
- Snohomish Estuary Restoration - A key milestone in the restoration of the Snohomish River Estuary was met with the inundation of the Qwuloolt restoration site (meaning "marsh" in the Lushootseed language). Qwuloolt is the first in a series of projects that will meet the 10-year estuary restoration goal for Snohomish Chinook salmon (see map inset A). The RLW initiative helped secure the funding package for Smith Island Restoration, the next step in estuary restoration.
- Ecosystem Recovery Story Maps - Conversations about multi-benefit restoration have led to development regional story maps by NOAA, and Snohomish Estuary story map by SLS partners to begin telling the multi-faceted stories of landscape restoration.
- Climate Change Analysis - The resilience designation has amplified work by the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group (Mauger et al 2015, Mauger et al 2016, Whitely Binder and Morse 2016) and ongoing coastal resilience efforts led by Washington Sea Grant. The Tulalip Tribes in turn hosted a two day sea level rise summit, resulting in a pending proposal to explore climate change threats to low-lying farms in the Snohomish and Stillaguamish estuaries.
- Coordinated Investment - Sustainable Lands Strategy has been invigorated by the opportunity to engage the Coordinated Investment team. A proposal for agency "improvement projects" developed through local collaboration, are making their way to regional executives, including the new CEQ supported Puget Sound Task Force.
- Non-traditional Partnerships - The agency commitment to the Snohomish Sustainable Land Strategy has increased interaction between agricultural leaders and agency staff, strengthening understanding about tribal rights, salmon recovery, and agency impacts on farming. This dialog culminated in a "Farm to Table" dinner in the Snohomish estuary attended by agency leadership and hosted by diverse factions of the Snohomish agricultural community, invigorating our next steps.
- Collaborative solutions to wicked problems may require tension between local and regional actors. Local governments understand the on-the-ground situation, but many not have the political will or capacity to tackle ecosystem management. Indian nations have the will, but lack the authority of state and federal governments. State and federal agencies have resources, but weak local intelligence, and have little incentive to collaborate. Effective efforts will leverage these relative strengths and weaknesses to stimulate coordination action.
- A strong loud coordinated local voice is vital in maintaining focus among state and federal partners. The strength of that voice comes from a clear understanding of common purpose among diverse partners. This has the potential to cause a feedback loop, where strong local consensus yields strong agency engagement, which encourages strong local consensus. However, local groups may not have the clearly articulated objectives that can cohere into a sustained strategy for action.
- Scale is important when working on wicked problems. Too large a scale, and efforts are mired in complexity. Too small a scale and you are not effectively grappling ecological problems. While watershed planning is vital, the county is where government, land use, and community values collide, and is a critical scale for institutional organization. Planning naturally occurs at a sub-basin scale, where you can accurately identify problems and barriers, but still gather the key players in a room and have a conversation.
- Dedicated staff laboring between meetings is essential. Big ideas, innovation, and opportunities are found through many small conversations at all levels of government and community. Ideas need to be identified and cultivated through interviews, conversations, and the maintenance of networks. Agencies left alone can find themselves in small orbits, endlessly reframing old problems.
- Agencies don't have incentive systems that reward collaboration and information sharing at the level necessary to solve wicked ecological problems. Maintaining high levels of information flow requires consistent effort and dedicated staff. Agencies are conditioned to frame problems in a way that supports their institutional requests for budget or authority. To drive agencies into collaboration may require external forces to redefine ecosystem management problems in a way that demands agency collaboration.
- We face an essential problem of maintaining agency attention in an institutional landscape punctuated by legal crises and competition for one or two year budgets. Transformative efforts require consistent direction and momentum over time. We work to identify and cultivate dedicated individuals within agencies, and build redundancies that can survive the inevitable shifting of leadership.
- Solving problems is a very personal affair, requiring consistent participation by skilled and motivated individuals. Workgroups of three to five strong players can be stable while remaining nimble. It is a challenge for a community with many institutions to trust a small workgroup to protect their interests, however big tent committees cannot innovate or do project management. Cultivating trust requires demonstrating trustworthiness, which takes time.