HomeHEADLINESWA Lawmaker Budgets Millions Apart On 2 Key Salmon Issues

WA Lawmaker Budgets Millions Apart On 2 Key Salmon Issues

It’s budget crunch time in Olympia and as legislators negotiate final spending packages for the next two years, a pair of key salmon-related items are in limbo.

KELLY CORCORAN HOISTS A PAIR OF DEEP SOUTH SOUND KINGS CAUGHT LAST SEPTEMBER NEAR OLYMPIA WHILE TROLLING. (COAST PHOTO CONTEST)

State senators and representatives are miles apart over funding for a long-planned WDFW hatchery in Deep South Sound that would likely boost Chinook returns for state and tribal fisheries as well as southern resident killer whales, as well as hiring new staffers to help ensure Columbia River fisheries are covered under ESA and to open a pair of new Eastside spring Chinook opportunities.

Assuming lawmakers wrap up the session on schedule April 24, there’s now a little less than two and a half weeks for them to reach an agreement on both, raising concerns among sportfishing interests.

THE FIRST IS THE NEW Deschutes Watershed Center, planned to be something of an Issaquah Salmon Hatchery-esque production and education facility not far from the state capitol – a chance to “showpiece our region’s hatchery system,” per a Squaxin Island Tribe official.

Plans call for it to rear just shy of 4 million Chinook smolts annually, fish that would help power fisheries from Neah Bay around Port Townsend and down Budd Inlet. WDFW has also termed Deschutes fall kings “one of the top three salmon populations that benefit orca.”

Right now those young salmon are the Army brats of the Northwest hatchery world; they’ve been dubbed “I-5 fish” for the amount of time they spend on the interstate being shuttled between rearing facilities, leading to increased risk and mortality. In 2018, an infamous power outage at Minter Creek killed off an entire year-class – 3-plus million fish.

Being able to raise these fall Chinook in just one place, the new hatchery, would probably boost their survival. And building it would also have the added benefit of freeing up space at those other facilities to raise more fish at them

Where other Puget Sound rivers have both wild and hatchery Chinook, with Tumwater Falls blocking all upstream access, there are no native kings in the Deschutes, so fewer ESA hurdles.

The watershed center has been on the drawing board for years, with the first round of funding granted in 2013, and since then its price tag has only gone up, just like the cost of so many other things, and is now projected at nearly $52 million.

Over $8 million has already been spent on planning, design and whatnot, while another $1.1 million was recently plopped down on a 32-acre parcel along the Deschutes just across the river from the Olympia Regional Airport. The site offers “pathogen free groundwater that is 51F year-round,” says WDFW.

For the 2023-25 budget, the agency requested $12 million (with the assumption they’d need another $12 million for 2025-27 and $10 million for 2027-29) and Governor Jay Inslee put that same figure into his proposed capital budget, while the Senate offered up slightly less in theirs.

But the House proposal put up no new money for it, leaving a glaring minimum $11.3 million gap with the upper chamber, though representatives did roll over an unspent $3.9 million from the previous biennium.

After all the hiccups – which have also included the Department of Ecology saying no to a previous downstream site at Pioneer Park because it was in the floodplain – sportfishing interests hope senators hold the line in negotiations with their counterparts and they are eager for WDFW to finalize permitting and start building the Deschutes Watershed Center.

If state lawmakers can’t come to a funding agreement this session, $24 million will then be needed in 2025-27, a heavier lift and likely putting the project on an even longer timeframe, with fish returning that much further out.

“It is critical that we secure the $12 million identified in Governor’s Inslee’s budget to move forward with construction of this much-needed hatchery in the South Sound,” said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. “It will help support fisheries throughout Puget Sound and equally important, it will help educate elected officials and the public about the important role hatcheries play in supporting conservation and fisheries. The Deschutes River project is supported by a broad coalition of recreational fishing organizations, and many of us have been working together for a decade to make it a reality.”

For the benefits the new hatchery would bring, the fact it can be built on a dead-end bay and there aren’t nearly the wild Chinook concerns of other Pugetropolis systems, and that its location near the heart of state government could lead to more support over the long term for salmon and their needs, I really hope the House and its members including your reps can match the Senate proposal.

FISHING GUIDE GERARDO REYES HOLDS A MID-COLUMBIA WALLEYE. (FLATOUTFISHING.NET)

THE SITUATION WITH THE SECOND salmon-related budget issue I referenced above – Columbia fishery permitting – is the opposite, in that the House operating budget would fully fund WDFW’s $1.4 million request for four new plan-writing staffers while the Senate and governor proposed nothing.

The rub here is that given the myriad ESA-listed salmon and steelhead stocks in the big river, WDFW needs to complete or update a number of fisheries management and evaluation plans, or FMEPs, to achieve federal approval of seasons, as well as authorize new ones.

Not having new plans or permits leaves the agency highly vulnerable to lawsuits from You Know Who and that potentially impacts far more than just salmon and steelhead fisheries.

A WDFW budget proposal submitted to the state Office of Financial Management last December clearly spells out the risks and the rewards.

To wit:

  • The Lower Columbia FMEP was written back before mass-marking began and a coho ESA listing, making it outdated as well as “limiting our ability to expand both mark­-selective and non­mark-selective fisheries when returns are sufficient”;
  • Updating FMEPs for the Touchet and Methow could create new spring Chinook fisheries on the two rivers at either end of Central Washington;
  • Bringing the Snake River steelhead and resident fish FMEP up to date would allow WDFW “to increase recreational fishing opportunity within the basin”;
  • And revising the FMEP for non-ESA-listed species and game fish, which expired in 2018 but is extended annually by NMFS, would account for new fisheries like coho seen in recent years.

I mentioned this upper/lower-chamber funding mismatch in late March, more in passing than anything, but when I dug deeper into it, I was a bit gobsmacked about what was both on the table – hurray for new springer ops! – and in danger – uhhh, bass and walleye guys, you aware of this?

Anyone following this?

Hello?!?

“If done correctly, the WDFW could have complete ESA coverage that incorporates the best available science and is standardized across the Columbia Basin, while ensuring conservation measures are met for listed salmon and steelhead populations,” the agency’s sales pitch to OFM reads.

“Consequences for not completing this work include increased risk of litigation and not being able to create new fisheries and prosecute and expand certain existing recreational fisheries due to lack of complete ESA coverage,” WDFW also warns.

It’s enough to make me want to rip my remaining hair out and I’d appreciate it if senators got on board with this one. How about you? Is yours?

A WDFW TECH HOLDS A HATCHERY COHO THAT RETURNED TO THE HANFORD REACH OF THE COLUMBIA LAST DECEMBER, A SALMON THAT’S PART OF A NEW PRODUCTION PROGRAM ON THIS STRETCH OF THE BIG RIVER. (WDFW)