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News / Northwest

Washington Legislature stalls on efforts to preserve salmon habitat

By Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times
Published: March 7, 2022, 11:16am

OLYMPIA — Salmon are losing ground in Washington — including in the Legislature.

Every year, more habitat is lost to development, setting back salmon survival despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent to save them. Yet two bills proposed this legislative session to preserve and help repair salmon habitat have failed.

HB 1117, a bill to require salmon recovery to be included as a goal in the comprehensive plans made by cities and counties under the Growth Management Act, didn’t pass — despite support from cities and counties. Even amendments to limit the scope of the bill to public construction projects couldn’t save it.

Tribes didn’t agree on the bill. Real estate and agriculture interests fought it.

Another bill requested by Gov. Jay Inslee, HB 1838, to address loss of tree cover along streams — which raises water temperatures and increases siltation that can smother salmon eggs — was dead on arrival.

Agricultural interests said they were not consulted in drafting the bill, which was denounced as a farm killer.

Salmon proponents see a species running out of time.

“Why are we not able to get our governing bodies to address salmon recovery?” said Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow. She was the prime sponsor of HB 1117, which also would have set net ecological gain as a standard for new development to prevent further losses of salmon habitat.

The state’s existing standard has been no net loss of habitat in development projects since 1989 — and it is not working, said Jeff Davis, director of conservation for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The state’s most recent State of the Salmon report in 2020 found that since the first salmon species was listed in Washington as threatened with extinction 30 years ago, 13 more species are now at risk.

Meanwhile, the effects of climate warming are becoming more severe: Floods are scouring stream beds. Rivers are warming. And as more people move here habitat is being lost.

The state forecasts that Washington’s population will grow by about 2,050,500 people, reaching 9,757,600 in 2050.

The combined pressures of population growth and climate change demand action, Davis said.

“The salmon are telling us, it is not balanced. The orca are telling us. Nature is telling us. Unless we are willing to go bold instead of constantly baby-stepping our path, I honestly don’t know what to do,” Davis said.

“I am pounding my head against a concrete wall to get people to see, extinction is an option.”

That’s not good news for people either, Davis stressed, because what is good for salmon — cold, clean water with adequate flow, forest cover, and healthy soils — is also what is good for people. “It’s not either or.”

Lekanoff, the state’s only Indigenous legislator, was particularly pained tribes didn’t unify behind the bill to include increasing salmon habitat in comprehensive plan updates to guide future growth. Some tribes opposed the bill as inadequately defined.

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“I am fighting tears,” Lekanoff said. “I know it is political suicide to say this, but If the tribes can’t even get over themselves to do this, and the governor can’t do this, who is fighting for salmon?”

The defeat on the policy front stands in contrast to the budget, where money is being poured into fixing state highway culverts to respond to a mandate affirmed by a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 to remove blockages caused by the culverts by 2030.

HB 1117 was intended to help boost results for the $2.6 billion for culvert repairs proposed in the state transportation budget, by setting a schedule for repairs on city and county culverts too.

Right now, new state culverts are being built upstream and downstream of city and county culverts that still block passage, an analysis by the Washington Association of Cities shows.

Investing only in state projects instead of prioritizing and funding whole-stream coordination means investments are stranded. There are 1,200 known city culverts continuing to block access to stream habitat, according to the analysis, despite billions of dollars spent on state culvert repair.

“The salmon still can’t get there,” said Carl Schroeder, deputy director of government relations for the Association of Washington Cities.

Counties also supported HB 1117 because it just seemed to make “common sense,” said Paul Jewell, policy director for land use, water, natural resources and environment for the Washington State Association of Counties.

“If salmon recovery is truly a goal of Washington state, the idea that various levels of government all the way to the local government should coordinate their salmon recovery plans is a good idea,” Jewell said.

“It’s pretty hard to say, ‘no, let’s not do that.’ If we don’t, we are assuring that were are destroying whatever is left of the salmon population.”

Which is exactly what is happening, said Will Hall, former mayor of Shoreline, and now a member of the leadership council for Puget Sound Partnership.

“Our current laws allow habitat loss and other environmental damage through zoning exceptions and other loopholes,” Hall said.

“Each exception may seem small, but adding them up shows how they are destroying the ecosystem.”

The continued decline in salmon isn’t helping developers, either, noted Barry Thom, regional administrator for the West Coast Regional Office of NOAA Fisheries.

The agency already is rejecting U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permits for projects in the central Puget Sound region because of habitat loss in the crucial near-shore zone, where juvenile salmon rear and migrate.

It will only continue to get harder and more expensive to get permits to build in the region if species keep becoming more imperiled, Thom said.

“We are losing habitat faster than we can recover it, and that has continued for decades and it is largely why we are in this situation today,” Thom said.

Some said the governor didn’t work hard enough to get the bills passed, even on his governor-request legislation to protect riparian areas.

Spokesman for the governor’s office Mike Faulk didn’t buy it.

“He not only made calls himself but specifically convened all the key legislators during session to urge them to move forward,” Faulk said of the governor in an email.

“We supported this proposal, we still support it, and we’re fully prepared to keep pushing to get the right thing done. The alternative of losing our salmon is not acceptable. The governor and staff are ready and willing to sit down with everyone who shares those goals or needs to be part of the solution.”

There is no other option, said Willie Frank III, chairman of the Nisqually Tribe. As a kid, he watched his father, Billy Frank Jr., and other salmon treaty rights defenders be beaten, teargassed and jailed by state game wardens to defend their right to fish.

Today those same treaty rights are at risk because the salmon runs have so diminished. And that is something that hurts all Washingtonians, Frank said.

“Look where we are in the last 20 years as Washingtonians, we have started letting that mighty dollar control what we do to protect this great state, to keep it green and keep healthy sustainable salmon runs for generations to come.

“We have to quit blaming, we have to come to the table and have hard conversations … the status quo is not working.”