As yesterday was Earth Day, no doubt your local news had at least a couple stories related to various environmental initiatives on behalf of whatever pressing problems plague the region where you live. On that front, there’s certainly no shortage of challenges these days.

Here in western Washington, where the sun finally broke through for a brief cameo over the weekend, it’s whale-watching season on Puget Sound, the immense inland bay that stretches across hundreds of miles of shoreline and millions of acres of marine environment. The Sound defines the coastal character of greater Seattle and provides habitat for such iconic species as Pacific salmon, harbor seals, bald eagles and of course, the orcas and gray whales that each spring arrive here from their winter migrations from Baja California and points south.

The sight of whales breaching the white-capped surface of the Sound, which can be seen from various harbors and island beaches, as the giant mammals up the shallow mudflats in search of shrimp and worms is a striking reminder of their majestic presence in an environment that’s right at the doorstep of millions of area residents.

But those millions of people also pose a problem for the Sound, and thus the marine and land animals dependent on its productivity for their survival. As various reports and studies have detailed, much of Puget Sound is in serious trouble:

  • The entire shoreline from Everett to Tacoma, a distance of over 100 miles, is off limits to commercial shellfish harvesting because of pollution
  • Dozens of swimming beaches are closed annually due to fecal contamination
  • Salmon populations are less than 10% of their historic numbers, as most fish don’t survive their journey through the Sound to reach the coastal rivers where they spawn
  • And the killer whales themselves, because they sit atop the food chain, have become some of the most contaminated mammals on the planet

There’s more, but you get the point. According to an Earth Day report from the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency heading up efforts to restore the Sound, the deluge of contaminants—everything from  industrial household chemicals to toxic heavy metals to sediment from stormwater and agricultural runoff—that washes into local rivers and estuaries each day, the long-term health of the entire marine ecosystem is jeopardized.

Of course, eliminate the population and the manufacturing, transportation and other productive enterprises that support them, and the pollution problems would disappear. Since that can’t happen, the imperative is to devise a comprehensive program to protect the Sound and maintain its viability—not just as a source of seafood, although that’s an industry valued at nearly $360 million annually, but as the basis for travel and tourism activities that generate a significant slice of Washington’s estimated $15 billion-a-year in economic benefit.

What’s needed: cooperation

We know what to do to reverse the decades of degradation; we understand the science and we have the technology. The challenge is how to do it.

No matter how various tactics are prioritized, the overall strategy comes down to a combination of private- and public-sector initiatives, with the emphasis on the latter. Despite all the campaign season rhetoric about government incompetence and overreach, the fact is that private business has neither the resources nor the wherewithal to even attempt to create the kinds of programs and projects that need to be put in place to save the Sound.

Or manage public rangelands, farmland and forests.

In all cases, it requires a combination of governmental fiat and incentives—the carrot and the stick, if you will—coupled with investments and technological improvements that the private sector can best initiate. That, and a healthy dose of citizen involvement, as well.

For example: The principal vectors for pollutants reaching the Sound are erosion and flooding on farmlands surrounding the region’s waterways and storm sewer discharge from urban streets and parking lots. To curtail all that requires both regulatory restrictions and tax policies to incentivize farmers and producers to better manage their properties, a governmental function; development of high-tech paving materials that can absorb rather than discharge rain and stormwater, a development several private investors and construction companies are pursuing; and a more conscientious citizenry that refrains from such practices as washing cars on the street and dousing lawns with herbicides and other potentially harmful chemicals.

Whether the goal is restoring the health of a giant marine ecosystem, protecting the viability of the grasslands that support cattle grazing or maintaining the productivity of the agricultural acreage that provides our nation’s food and feed, success depends on the collaborative power of government, private business and individual citizens working together.

Each can do so to derive its own benefits, but without the involvement of all three, failure is often not just an option, but a guarantee.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.