Skip to main content

Puget Sound Restoration: Additional Actions Could Improve Assessments of Progress

GAO-18-453 Published: Jul 19, 2018. Publicly Released: Jul 19, 2018.
Jump To:

Fast Facts

Puget Sound is the nation's second largest estuary, supporting millions of people and a wide variety of species. Development and use, however, have degraded its water quality and habitat, and harmed critical species like salmon and killer whales.

Federal and nonfederal entities have established two main interagency groups to coordinate restoration efforts. However, it's difficult to assess the amount of progress these groups have made, in part because they lack measurable targets for a number of indicators.

We recommended that these groups improve their ability to assess the progress of Puget Sound restoration efforts.

Seahurst Park Shoreline Restoration Project

Before and after photographs of a shoreline restoration project, and a map of the project location.

Before and after photographs of a shoreline restoration project, and a map of the project location.

Skip to Highlights


What GAO Found

Through its survey of federal and Washington State entities, GAO identified numerous federal and state efforts that, in whole or in part, supported Puget Sound restoration from fiscal years 2012 through 2016. The efforts involved a variety of activities, including habitat protection, water quality improvement, and monitoring. Some of these efforts focused exclusively on Puget Sound restoration, while others had a broader geographic or programmatic scope. Funding for these efforts came from a variety of sources, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which reported expending about $142 million for activities in Puget Sound through the National Estuary Program and the Puget Sound Geographic Program during this time frame. However, total expenditures for all efforts are unknown, in part because of difficulties isolating expenditures specific to Puget Sound. A 2017 state audit recommended that two state agencies develop a plan to create a more complete inventory of restoration efforts and related funding. The state agencies concurred and have plans to develop this inventory by August 2019.

Federal and nonfederal entities coordinate restoration efforts through two primary interagency groups. First, the state-led Puget Sound Management Conference has developed a comprehensive conservation and management plan (CCMP), approved by EPA under the National Estuary Program, that serves as the primary planning document for Puget Sound restoration. Second, the Puget Sound Federal Task Force complements the work of the management conference by coordinating the efforts of federal agencies to support the CCMP, including by developing a draft Federal Action Plan that identifies priority federal actions to protect and restore Puget Sound.

The CCMP lays out a framework for assessing restoration progress, including 6 goals, 47 indicators, and recovery targets for 31 of the indicators. In 2017, the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency, reported that progress had been made in some areas, but many key indicators had not shown improvement. For example:

  • One indicator that showed improvement was acres of harvestable shellfish beds, which the Partnership reported increased from 2007 to 2016.
  • One indicator that showed no improvement was the abundance of Puget Sound Chinook salmon populations, which the Partnership reported remained below desired levels.

The Partnership also reported that most of the 31 recovery targets that the management conference has adopted for 2020 are not likely to be attained. However, the Partnership's ability to assess progress has been limited in some instances, in part because the management conference has not developed targets for 16 of the 47 indicators. GAO has identified measurable targets as a key attribute of successful performance measures. By working with the management conference to help ensure that measurable targets are developed where possible for the highest priority indicators currently lacking such targets, EPA would better position the Partnership to assess progress toward restoration goals.

Why GAO Did This Study

Puget Sound is the nation's second-largest estuary and serves as an important economic engine in Washington State, supporting millions of people, major industries, and a wide variety of species. However, according to the CCMP, human use and development have degraded water quality and habitats and harmed critical species such as salmon.

GAO was asked to review efforts to restore Puget Sound. This report examines, among other objectives, (1) Puget Sound restoration efforts and related expenditures for fiscal years 2012 through 2016, (2) how federal and nonfederal entities coordinate their restoration efforts, and (3) the framework for assessing progress toward Puget Sound restoration. GAO reviewed restoration plans and other documentation, conducted a two-phase survey of the more than 25 federal and state entities that GAO determined had participated in restoration efforts, conducted discussion groups with tribal and local representatives, and interviewed representatives from these federal and nonfederal entities.


GAO is making two recommendations, including that EPA work with the management conference to help ensure that measurable targets are developed where possible for the highest priority indicators currently lacking such targets. EPA agreed with GAO's recommendations and highlighted steps the agency has begun taking and plans to take to address the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency The EPA Region 10 Administrator should work with the management conference on future updates to the CCMP to help prioritize among the indicators that currently lack measurable targets and ensure that such targets are developed for the highest priority indicators where possible. (Recommendation 1)
Open – Partially Addressed
In June 2023, EPA continues to work with the Management Conference and the Puget Sound Partnership to implement the existing Action Agenda while also refining the targets and indicators that will be incorporated into the next Action Agenda (2027-2031). In August 2022, EPA approved a new Puget Sound Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP), called the 2022-2026 Action Agenda. Whereas previous Puget Sound CCMPs primarily focused on project-oriented near term actions, the new CCMP takes a different approach that focuses more on longer-term implementation strategies to achieve restoration goals. As part of this shift, the management conference revised the framework for assessing restoration progress to include three different types of targets covering different time frames: (1) short term (known as Program Targets); (2) medium term (known as Action Agenda Progress Indicator Targets); and (3) long term (known as Vital Signs Indicator Targets). According to EPA officials and documentation, EPA worked with the management conference to prioritize among the indicators for the development of targets, leading to the inclusion of 11 short term Program Targets and 6 long term Vital Signs Indicator Targets in the 2022-2026 CCMP. The management conference has not yet developed the medium term targets, but the CCMP states that those targets will be developed in the coming years. GAO will continue to monitor the status of this effort.
Environmental Protection Agency The EPA Region 10 Administrator should work with the appropriate members of the federal task force regional implementation team to clearly link, such as through the tracking tool, the Federal Action Plan's priority federal actions to the CCMP's framework for assessing progress toward Puget Sound restoration. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
In April 2019, EPA developed a crosswalk to link the Federal Action Plan's priority federal actions to the 2018 CCMP's framework for assessing Puget Sound restoration progress. Specifically, this crosswalk links the priority federal actions to the CCMP's Strategic Initiatives (Habitat, Stormwater, and Shellfish) and their corresponding 11 priority vital signs. The crosswalk also includes information about other state and tribal strategies to show how these strategies align with the CCMP and the priority federal actions. EPA officials stated that the crosswalk has been an effective engagement tool that has helped to ensure federal actions to protect and restore Puget Sound are consistent with the shared priorities of tribal, state, and local partners involved in Puget Sound restoration efforts.

Full Report

Office of Public Affairs


Clean waterConservation of natural resourcesEcologyEcosystemsEnvironmental protectionEstuariesFederal fundsGrant programsHabitatPollutionSpeciesWater quality