Restoring creeks and competition | Enhancing economic and ecological function

The words “economics” and “ecology” stem from the ancient Greek root oikos meaning the family and the family’s property. The two disciplines are founded on many of the same principles. Citizens working toward a better world face challenges that overlap and fall under both. We hope for a more equitable society. We hope to guarantee that everyone has a chance at health and sustenance. To have sustenance, people need sources of food and the means of purchase. Locally, the most productive source of both is the marine environment, which we have degraded and refuse to fix.

Manufacturing salmon and sea life

We think we can manufacture a more productive system than nature, that for example by growing salmon in net pens we can increase production. Wild salmon go to sea where they feed and grow and then return. Aquaculture will never come up to the same level of productivity as millions of salmon returning from the sea.

Geoducks naturally grow in the sub-tidal zone, below the beach. Growing three geoducks on every square foot of intertidal beach is going to displace other species and imperil outmigrating forage fish. The impacts on salmon, herring, rockfish and shellfish varieties grown where they naturally proliferate are a certainty.

Government efforts fall short

The State with the help of a few non-profits is attempting to identify beaches where forage fish are observed spawning and provide them with special protection. Given that forage fish populations are already in decline a better approach would be to determine which beaches meet physical parameters for spawning and protect those. An even better approach would be to determine where physical parameters could be restored or enhanced and restore and enhance them.

Washington State operates under a paradigm called “No Net Loss”. If we cause a loss in ecological function in one place, we “mitigate”  the loss someplace else. In our arrogance we tell ourselves that we can build a wetland where one didn’t exist that will be equal to one that nature built over millions of years. We imagine that by maintaining some sameness we won’t see continuing loss through interactions between diminished populations and degraded habitats.

Big money wants to grow bigger

The challenge in all cases is the influence of big money. The captains of big business represent big money and they want that money to grow. They demand to develop for profit. They want species harvested by their big businesses that employ people at or near minimum wage. Wild species on the other hand, are typically harvested by individuals operating their own vessels as independent businesses, not by big businesses. Meager incomes for workers and dwindling supplies of marine food stem from the same source — the demand by a small number of very wealthy people to make even more money. 

Foretelling the non-existence of Moxlie Creek

Work will soon begin on parcels two and three across State Ave from Cherry Street in what was the Moxlie Creek Estuary prior to its being filled in the 1980s. Real estate developer Walker John plans to build 85 market rate housing units with retail and office space on the ground floor. There is little that will stand in the way at this point. There’s been no sampling for dense non-aqueous liquids like creosote, the actual chemicals of concern, no assessment of oceanographic parameters like primary and secondary production and basic water quality. There’s been no real science. In all the thousand some odd pages pertaining to parcels two and three, Moxlie Creek literally does not exist!

Elsewhere, officials begin to restore estuaries

Last week officials in Blaine stopped development in the estuary of California Creek. Officials in other cities have taken similar steps:  Kingston restored the Carpenter Creek estuary. Silverdale restored the Clear Creek estuary. Seattle daylighted a long section of Thornton Creek. California restorations include the Lake Merritt estuary and Alviso Marsh in San Francisco Bay, Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing and the Bolsa Chica reserve in Los Angeles. Restoration of the Los Angeles River is in the planning stages. There are many other examples of urban stream and estuary restorations up and down the West Coast. Olympia has fallen far behind, its heads in a proverbial hole.

Overlapping jurisdictions and diminishing opportunity

One problem here is that we have so many overlapping jurisdictions none of which wants to step on the others’ toes. We have Thurston County, the Cities of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater, LOTT sewage treatment and the Port of Olympia, six separate local governing bodies. By contrast, the City and County of San Francisco is one governing body that oversees its port and sewage treatment. The system is more efficient, it plans and works more toward the general good and it’s less susceptible to special interests.

Big money generates undue influence. We might remember though that the first instances of writing were ledgers and IOUs. Money marked the beginning of civilization. Competitive free enterprise for all its defects is self correcting and efficient. Perhaps the problem is that our current corporate-dominated system is not free enterprise—competition diminishes as competitors gobble each other up.  Perhaps what we’ve lost in today’s economy is opportunity.

Minimum wage and maximum rent

A few decades ago, driving down West Bay Drive past all the lumber and plywood mills, one would see car after car with bumper stickers that read “Don’t Export Logs and Jobs.”  That’s exactly what the Port does today. All the mills are gone and young people are expected to work in minimum wage service-industry jobs. Working full time a person might make $2000 per month. After taxes and other subtractions a person is supposed to pay $700 per month rent. The City’s response is to encourage construction of new low income housing projects, where rents will in reality still be unaffordable for a significant portion of our community. The true intent once again is to funnel money through tax breaks and other incentives into the pockets of developers. The State meanwhile is increasing property taxes to pay for education – and in many cases landlords will pass on that increase to renters. 

What happened to Adam Smith’s hand?

What if we were to require governments to make money the old fashioned way. All the means of resource extraction might be government-owned and operated. Any business that grows beyond the point of competition might be purchased and operated by governing bodies. Independent businesses, for example, might benefit from on-line marketing and the on-line marketing system be government operated at a profit. The independent makers of knives or cabinets as well as farmers, restauranteurs and others would pay no taxes. Though there may be rules and limits, the intent would be to let Adam Smith’s invisible hand run the show day to day. Whatever the solution, we’d all benefit if we could somehow take some control back from the influence wielded by the masters of big money.

Harry Branch is a devoted Westsider who has worked on a variety of ecological projects here and abroad.  His hobby is thinking.