Politics

Water Diplomat

William Ruckelshaus has had lots of tough assignments. He's got another one now.
by | July 2007
 

The waters of Puget Sound tend to take on the colors of the sky above. Set off by numerous islands and the Olympic Mountains, they present some of the most pleasing vistas in the country. But looks are deceiving. The water is dirty. "What is an absolutely pristine- appearing Puget Sound on its surface," says Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, "just beneath is suffering and in some places dying."

This spring, Gregoire persuaded the legislature to approve $240 million to save the Sound, on top of the $250 million the state already spends every year controlling pollutants that go into it. Then she went looking for someone to take charge of the cleanup. She ended up with a unusual choice: 74-year-old William Ruckelshaus, best-known as the man who quit as deputy attorney general in 1973 rather than obey President Nixon's order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor.

In fact, environmental issues have been Ruckelshaus' focus for most of the past three decades. He was federal EPA administrator in the early 1970s and again briefly in the '80s; in between, he was a senior executive at Weyerhaeuser, the giant timber company based in Seattle. He has been a leader in efforts to make northwestern waters healthy for fish, especially the salmon he likes to go fishing for himself.

The legislation Gregoire pushed through this year created a new state agency--the Puget Sound Partnership--charged with creating a comprehensive plan expected to cost upwards of $8 billion by 2020. As head of the partnership, Ruckelshaus will coordinate efforts and tactics among all the other players and potential polluters-- businesses, local governments, Indian tribes, the federal government and private citizens.

The former EPA director knows the issues as well as anyone, but it's his broad connections within the business community that might actually prove most useful in his new job, which will require diplomacy at least as much as it requires expertise. Nobody believes the state can restore the Sound to health simply by handing down regulations. "Ruckelshaus' view," says state Senator Phil Rockefeller, "has been that we could achieve more in a non-regulatory framework." In fact, that may be the only way the program can succeed.

Credentials notwithstanding, Ruckelshaus has a tough job ahead of him. The new agency has little formal power, even over state programs. Ruckelshaus will have to convene and cajole. He says he's optimistic that, with proper education about the Sound's fragile state of health, the public will offer "not only near-term support but sort of a forever support."

The bill creating the agency places a heavy emphasis on independent scientific research, learning from problems encountered in other parts of the country, such as the Everglades and Chesapeake Bay. Cleanup efforts in those places have been limited both by a lack of accountability measures and a failure to maintain consistent support from the surrounding communities. "Nobody's quite figured out how to restore an ecosytem, with all the human pressures on it," Ruckelshaus says. "It's an intriguing challenge and inherently interesting to me."

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