Updated 8:30 a.m., Friday, April 21, 2022, with a brief statement from WDFW in the fourth paragraph from bottom.
WDFW and the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission are being sued over last month’s purchase of land on the Deschutes River near Olympia for a new salmon hatchery as well as a 2021 master plan to boost salmon production in support of orca forage efforts.
Washington Wildlife First – an adversarial organization that will be familiar to Evergreen State hunters – claims that the agency and citizen panel should have completed State Environmental Policy Act reviews for both actions in a 34-page Thurston County Superior Court filing, and they are asking a judge to declare the officials to be in violation of SEPA and bar them from taking further actions on either until that is remedied.
Their lawsuit comes just as state lawmakers in Olympia are in final capital budget negotiations, with Governor Jay Inslee and Senate Democrats both having included $11 million or more in proposed funding for the Deschutes Watershed Center in their spending packages, but House Democrats not designating any new money to the project. It might indicate a funding deal is close and be meant to freeze that at a critical juncture, and/or to collect a pound of flesh in a settlement.
Sportfishing organizations like NSIA, ASA, NMTA and ASA as well the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation are strongly in support of the new hatchery, which would raise nearly 4 million Chinook smolts that are otherwise shuttled between facilities in Deep South Sound. Rearing them in one location would likely increase smolt survival (as well as free up space at the other hatcheries for production), while returning adult salmon would provide forage for southern resident killer whales as well as help power angling opportunities from Neah Bay around to Budd Inlet.
To that end, the commission in mid-March signed off on a $1 million deal to buy a 32-acre parcel on the Deschutes to build the long-awaited hatchery complex, billed to be something of a showcase and educational facility, but also a place to raise a critically important Chinook stock.
WWF’s lawsuit takes issue with that acquisition and the seeming certainty the project would go forward in WDFW’s final pitch to the commission, which ultimately voted unanimously in favor of the deal. They say WDFW hasn’t done a SEPA threshold check of the planned hatchery and “has clearly prejudged the outcome of any such analysis” and thus is in violation of the act.
The long-waiting-in-the-wings Deschutes hatchery is part of WDFW’s 2021 master plan to boost salmon production by 36.4 million, but the organization claims the agency hasn’t issued a SEPA threshold determination or other analysis on that plan either, “and now disclaims that it is under any obligation to do so.”
What’s more, WWF says that since the plan wasn’t trotted before the commission for review, nor had the citizen panel delegated authority on the matter to the agency, any actions taken under it are “invalid” under the state Administrative Procedures Act.
The Northcentral Washington-based outfit claims its board, staff and supporters will be harmed by WDFW and the commission’s noncompliance with SEPA rules.
“At this time, we’re not able to comment on active litigation,” WDFW spokeswoman Sam Montgomery said Friday morning.
Meanwhile, the agency’s website describes what’s officially known as the “Hatchery Improvement Master Plan – Southern Resident Killer Whale Prey Enhancement” as flowing out of Governor Inslee’s SRKW task force, which found lack of prey, and specifically Chinook, as contributing to the iconic marine mammals’ woes. The task force recommended funding a significant increase in hatchery production “to benefit SRKWs in a manner consistent with existing state and federal policies.”
“To that end, WDFW has prepared an Infrastructure Master Plan for salmon hatcheries statewide that prioritizes hatchery improvements based on the recommendations of the Orca Task Force, including evaluating the feasibility of a new Cowlitz River Salmon Hatchery and to identify additional actions to increase Chinook Salmon production in Puget Sound, on the Washington Coast, and in the Columbia River basin,” the agency states.
The plan spoke to a new Deschutes hatchery at Pioneer Park in Tumwater just above the falls, but the Department of Ecology nixed that because it was in the floodplain, so the new site was purchased. In addition to last month’s $1 million, over $8 million has been spent on facility planning, design and whatnot. The new site off Rixie Road southeast of Olympia Airport offers “pathogen free groundwater that is 51F year-round,” according to WDFW.