Familiar with the Puyallup Watershed Initiative?

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Anyone who has lived in this area very long could probably write their own catalog of the “best kept secrets” of Pierce County.

The irony is that many of these “secrets” define and express who we are as a community even as they are barely visible or recognizable in our everyday routines.

Some of these characteristics or communities – like our susceptibility to volcanoes and lahars – are abstract – even as they are ever-present. We all know volcanoes and lahars (especially in the valley areas like Puyallup and Orting) are possible, if not likely, some day, perhaps even some day soon, but not today.

Other parts of our country and world have tornado, flood or hurricane “seasons.” Our volcanoes, lahars and earthquakes could come any time – which most of us interpret as no time that should concern us.

The west side of Mount Rainier, source of the Puyallup River    Photo by Morf Morford

The west side of Mount Rainier, source of the Puyallup River
Photo by Morf Morford

We shouldn’t worry obsessively about the imminent collapse of Mount Rainier above us or the collision of the tectonic plates below us, but we do need to be aware of the natural world in a state of flux around us.

We in Pierce County have a whole other set of shifting possibilities around us. JBLM is, by far, Pierce County’s largest employer. The Port of Tacoma is another large employer. The vast majority of those people associated with JBLM have lived in, or have contacts with people, faiths and organizations in the far reaches of the world.

The Port of Tacoma by definition has links across the physical world with its own spin on contemporary trade routes and shipping lanes.

In short, we are a peculiarly defined geographical area with a long history of links to distant places.

Our trade, our identity, our possibilities and yes, our destiny, is wrapped up in this barely recognized,  sometimes uneasy, sometimes delicate, state of equilibrium or equipoise that most of us barely notice as we are stuck in traffic, doing our shopping or at work.

But this larger system is always there, its pulse is always present and all it takes is a little tremor to remind us that our life and its pervasive schedule will not always reign supreme.

I’m not sure if Pierce County has a more complex and volatile ecosystem and more complicated economy than most; it might. But it is the area I know best, even as the immensity of its ever-moving parts and emerging complexities always seem to elude me.

Most of us work, drive and live out our lives with little thought of volcanoes, earthquakes or the twists and turns of the global economy, or the federal budget – but they do – or at least might eventually – impact us directly.

Fortunately there is an organization that works to identify, define and integrate what might seem like a bunch of stray issues and contradictory priorities.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we occupy, work and live our lives within a dynamic ecosystem that exists by its own rules and on its own schedule. Our understanding of it – and our demands on it – and possibly, its potential impacts on us, define us perhaps more than most other residents of our nation are defined by their weather and terrain.

We are residents, but we are also, or at least should be, active participants in our neighborhoods, communities, and ever-shifting balance of water, earth and weather.

Our personal and public choices and policies define our legacy and the future we leave our children and grandchildren and, one might hope, near infinite future generations.

Puyallup Watershed Initiative (PWI) works to envision and cohere these oftentimes competing values and uses.

Here’s an excerpt from the Puyallup Watershed Initiative (PWI) website - 

Where did the Puyallup Watershed Initiative (PWI) come from?

The Russell Family Foundation (TRFF) announced that, after five years of development, local action, and community guidance, its Puyallup Watershed Initiative (PWI) will transition to an independent nonprofit as of January 1, 2018. The Russell Family Foundation recently issued $1,885,400 in grants to support PWI’s continued efforts in creating community-centered change on issues such as clean water, transportation, environmental education & stewardship, public health, natural resources, and food justice.

“This transition of the PWI into full independence upholds our belief that the people who live and work in a community understand its issues best, and when given the right resources have the greatest ability to make a lasting impact,” said Richard Woo, Chief Executive Officer at TRFF.

To date, the PWI has helped bring together hundreds of leaders and nonprofit organizations; 17 cities; forests; rich agricultural lands and one of the busiest ports on the West Coast to collectively improve social and environmental conditions throughout the region. It has worked with local partners to leverage $34 million in funding and investments into the watershed, impacting its six focus areas or Communities of Interest (COI) which include: Active Transportation; Agriculture; Environmental Education; Forests; Industrial Stormwater; and Just and Healthy Food System.

“There is no greater measure of success than launching a program and watching it grow into a self-sufficient community-led initiative,” said Henry Izumizaki, Strategy Director at TRFF. “In a brief time, the PWI has built its reputation as a trusted ally in the watershed, and its new independence marks the beginning of long-lasting systems change for our region.”

The PWI’s new independence will bring a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, charitable status for the organization. All leadership and administrative duties will be directed by the newly appointed Community Board made up of various constituencies from the watershed. Jennifer Chang, PWI Community Relations Manager, will be appointed as Acting Director.

“This is a milestone moment for the PWI and I am thrilled to be helping lead its efforts in 2018, as we continue to drive tangible solutions for the watershed and all those who are impacted by it,” said Chang.

Photo by Morf Morford

Photo by Morf Morford

The work of the PWI’s COI has contributed to meaningful change in the watershed, including:

Active Transportation: Advocating for pedestrian safety has led to the passage of a Safe Routes to School (SRTS) Action Plan passed in the City of Tacoma with funding for SRTS projects through 2019. Beginning in the 2018-2019 school year, schools will implement bike and pedestrian safety education standards. Additionally, the Active Transportation COI  manager has been invited to sit on the statewide Cooper Jones Bicycle Safety Advisory Council.

Agriculture: Building awareness and participation in critical farmland conservation programs, such as Agricultural Resource Land Zoning and Transfer of Development Rights.

Environmental Education: Actively working with Fife, Federal Way, White River, Tacoma, and Puyallup School Districts as well as Annie Wright Schools to advance the SEARCH Project (Science Education through Authentic Research Collaboration with Higher-Education), which engages K-12 students in STEM through involvement in research and inquiry.

Forests: Expanding forest stewardship throughout the watershed, through education and outreach, landowner engagement, tree coupons, and other mechanisms.

Industrial Stormwater: Increasing engagement with businesses in the Tacoma Tideflats with both face-to-face and web-based learning and collaboration that promotes stronger coordination between local governments, industries and neighborhoods to address and prevent stormwater pollution into Commencement Bay and Puget Sound.

Just & Healthy Food System: Empowering community through Community Based Participatory Research in Orting, South Tacoma, and Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood in order to pinpoint and clarify key issues of food justice confronting their populations.

Continuing the PWI journey beyond 2018

As their journey continues, here are some thoughts from the PWI in their own words. The Watershed today is a vibrant interplay of urban and rural areas that continues to evolve. While Tacoma still adheres to its sense of destiny, the county and its residents no longer fixate solely on a rails-to-sails connection as they once did. Agriculture remains a driving force in the Watershed’s economy, yet changes in technology and the economy are reshaping that sector as well. In part because of these intensive changes, the environment’s welfare weighs on everyone’s minds.

We stand at a pivotal moment: for the PWI in its transition into an independent nonprofit, for The Russell Family Foundation (TRFF) in its next endeavors, and above all, for the Watershed’s sustained development. There is great strength and possibility in our respective visions, energies, and ambitions, which will continue to compel all actors toward a shared goal: ensuring the environmental and social well-being of this incredible Watershed that we call home. How quickly we are able to express our shared commitment to this special place and to each other will determine our long-term success. This sharing can only happen through greater inclusion of our community members. Now more than ever, we must put our resources toward creating new channels for community voices and input to guide us on this journey. We believe one such channel for change – a critical one for the Watershed – can be the community-led PWI.

Five short years ago, TRFF was making investments throughout the South Sound, attempting to improve the quality of water and quality of life of the Watershed’s residents. In that short time, they have created something truly extraordinary: a vision for expansive change, borne by the many voices that comprise our community. Now the PWI will carry on that spark. Time will determine the ultimate outcome of this project that we have begun together. In a year’s time, publication of a third White Paper will help us reflect deeper upon our work and on this momentous transition for the PWI. New challenges and opportunities await. Chart our progress with us. Become a part of our journey.

- The Puyallup Watershed Initiative


Editor’s note: For details on each of the Communities of Interest, check out this website -  www.pwi.org/communities.

For background and updates on the Tahoma to Tacoma trail network (over 62 miles!) keep an eye on this website -  www.pwi.org/tahomatotacoma.

For further information or to contact PWI, start here – www.pwi.org.

The Puyallup Watershed – it’s where we live.