Washington’s salmon recovery plan is stronger than ever, despite what some may say | Opinion

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A recent Tri-City Herald editorial rightly pointed out the salmon crisis “demands thoughtful consideration of all contributing factors.” The rest of the argument betrays a lack of awareness of the abundant work the state is doing for salmon and orca recovery.

Whether it’s climate change warming our waters, the degradation of riparian ecosystems, toxics in our streams and rivers, or fish passage impeded by dams and culverts, Washington’s iconic salmon are at risk from a cavalcade of challenges. That’s why a robust, holistic approach to salmon recovery has consistently been one of my top priorities as governor.

My administration has centered salmon recovery as a critical piece of all the watershed-based initiatives launched over my tenure. The Tri-City Herald editorial’s argument misses these facts and rests heavily on the narrow conclusions of a Government Accountability Office report and predictably misguided spin by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse.

The GAO report erroneously inflates the significance of antiquated 1972 reporting requirements and how they influence our actions on salmon recovery. Viewed separate from the rest of the record and in the vacuum of cynical partisan channels, those unfamiliar would be left wondering why the state isn’t doing much to address water quality for salmon.

On the contrary, Washington has one of the largest, most comprehensive water quality assessments in the nation — conducted in partnership with Tribes in Washington. Each assessment confirms what we have long known — that the challenges facing water quality in Puget Sound and around the state are well understood. It is hampered by polluted stormwater runoff and limited by loss of habitat.

This is why our policies focus on protecting and restoring critical salmon habitat, reducing toxic pollutants in stormwater and removing fish-blocking barriers.

Gov. Jay Inslee
Gov. Jay Inslee

We lead the nation in this work. My administration’s work with other sovereigns in the Columbia Basin contributed to the president’s September memorandum directing all federal agencies with roles in salmon recovery to assess their programs for the potential to bring salmon and other fish to “healthy and abundant” levels in the basin.

In urban areas, toxics in stormwater pose a dire threat to our salmon in urban streams. One example is 6PPD — a chemical used in tires recently discovered to be acutely lethal to coho salmon. Collaboration with Tribes, research institutions and the federal government is key to address stormwater pollution. In partnership with Tribes and our state universities, we have led groundbreaking research and action on 6PPD.

In this current biennium alone, the state invested nearly $97 million in research to better understand the impact of 6PPD on aquatic species, and in stormwater best management practices to minimize and mitigate the impact of 6PPD and to reduce sources of 6PPD to prevent it from entering the environment in the first place.

In many rural areas, failing septic systems leach dangerous toxins into groundwater. We’re providing thousands of homeowners across our state low-interest loans to repair or replace failing septic systems.

Industrial pollutants like PCBs are a persistent threat to salmon and human health. In Spokane, we’ve helped to remove 8,000 pounds of toxic PCBs in the Spokane River.

In Pasco, we have committed more than $53 million to improve the city’s process water reuse facility — a project that will improve water quality by removing pollutants like methane and nitrogen from industrial process water.

The Climate Commitment Act — our 2021 legislation that reduces climate pollution and invests the payments from polluters back into communities — is also boosting the state’s efforts to protect and recover our salmon populations. More than $300 million in CCA funds is specifically dedicated to projects that make the state’s waters and forests more resilient to climate change impacts, conserve working forestlands and increase their carbon pollution reduction capacity through sequestration and storage.

Importantly, the CCA is providing a significant infusion of funding for removing hundreds of fish passage barriers along state highways that block about 650 miles of habitat for salmon and steelhead.

This work is important to meeting the state’s salmon recovery commitment to Tribes. The CCA is contributing $118 million toward salmon projects in the 2023-25 budget, with $50 million alone going to riparian restoration. The cap-and-invest law funds fish barrier removal, floodplain restoration, conservation and flood hazard reduction through projects like the Quillayute River Historic Oxbow effort that improves salmon habitat by better managing floodplain function and connectivity.

When it comes to restoring habitat and improving fish passage, Washington is making good progress on projects big and small around the state. I have worked on watersheds and salmon recovery since I was first sent to Congress to represent Central Washington in 1992, specifically the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan.

The plan funds over 40 habitat projects in its first phase alone. Innovative fish passage improvements underway at the Cle Elum Dam are one example of the success of this robust approach to salmon recovery. The flumes being installed will let juvenile salmon pass even with fluctuating water levels, which will only become a greater concern as climate change decimates our glaciers.

My administration launched the Chehalis Basin Strategy, the Nooksack Transboundary Flood Initiative, and the Walla Walla Water 2050 Initiative. Each has centered salmon restoration on the same level as water supply, flood control and other priorities.

In 2021, we updated the Statewide Salmon Recovery Strategy to put Washington on a recovery path that more actively protects salmon — strengthening the state’s commitment and accountability with strong investments, honoring our commitments to tribes and assuring federal commitments and funding for salmon recovery. Since the update, the state has invested over $620 million in fish passage, riparian management, restoration of working lands and voluntary protection and restoration of lands.

Since 2005, the state has corrected 3,750 fish passage barriers; made 4,700 miles of stream accessible to salmon; restored 26,000 riparian acres and more than 10,000 acres of estuaries and nearshore areas. In my time as governor, we have made unprecedented new investments in these efforts — like funding the reconnection of 11,000 acres of floodplain habitat and the restoration of 131 miles of rivers and streams.

Meanwhile, Newhouse and McMorris Rodgers have whiffed on chances to aid salmon restoration. Most recently, in March, they both voted to overturn the Biden administration’s modest improvements to the Clean Water Act to better protect the country’s wetlands and waterways from pollution.

Both voted against the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which had significant salmon recovery investment in Washington state including Puget Sound. This federal law funds one of the largest fish passage projects in U.S. history at the Howard Hanson Dam east of Auburn. The project will restore salmon migration to over 100 miles of habitat while also increasing storage capacity for Tacoma Public Utilities and maintaining critical flood management for the Green River Valley.

Funding has historically been one of the biggest challenges facing Puget Sound recovery efforts, delaying projects at the expense of Puget Sound and the salmon that rely on it, yet Newhouse and McMorris Rodgers missed another opportunity when they voted against the Inflation Reduction Act. Combined with the bipartisan infrastructure law, these measures include billions for programs and projects that support Puget Sound and salmon recovery.

The record shows that the state put enormous resources into addressing all contributing factors causing salmon decline. Yet these two representatives are themselves blinded by partisanship when it comes to the hard, necessary work of salmon recovery.

Fortunately, a majority of Washington’s elected state and federal officials do appreciate the many challenges facing salmon. We and our many partners value collaboration and results over assigning blame and deflecting nuance. We’re putting the time, effort and resources into solving this urgent issue.

Much work remains. Our efforts to date will not be deterred by revisionism and cynical political salvos. The holistic efforts of state, federal, Tribal, local and other stakeholders to save our iconic salmon will continue.

More partners are always welcome.

Jay Inslee is a Democrat who has served as governor of Washington since 2013.