Washington State is stepping up to the plate and putting its money where its mouth is. The legislature passed a new state budget that will guide spending for the next two years and work to fund protections for the 75 southern resident orcas that are left. One of the top priorities for the legislature and Governor Inslee this year was preventing the orcas’ extinction and they acted boldly by passing four bills aimed at addressing the major threats to orcas: a lack of prey, toxic pollution, disturbance from vessel noise, and the risk of an oil spill. All of these bills are extremely important in recovering our southern residents, but they all require funding.
For years, Washington has underfunded the programs and agencies aimed at recovering and protecting wildlife. Fortunately, the new budget passed by the state takes several steps in the right direction for orcas and salmon. It wasn’t perfect, but if the state builds on these investments over the long-run, Washington can make serious progress on orca recovery. Here are the highlights:
The state will be taking a much harder look at the impact of dams.
European colonization of the Pacific Northwest was made possible by dams. These giant structures provided cheap energy, made it easier to navigate rivers, and irrigated crops. But they also choke rivers, altering natural processes and impacting wildlife like salmon. While salmon passage has improved at many dams with the installation of fish ladders and spillways, both adult and juvenile salmon continue to struggle passing these barriers. Dam removal has been proven to be one of the most effective ways to recover salmon. With the new budget, the state will be taking a harder look at dams and the impact they have on salmon.
- One of the major habitat restoration projects funded this year was the removal of a dam on the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River, an important chinook salmon river in the Salish Sea.
- The budget will also support a stakeholder forum to develop a transition plan for the state if the four lower Snake River dams are removed. Removal of these four dams is a federal decision, and federal agencies are currently developing plans that would include the removal of these dams. If the government decides to remove these dams, it will be important for communities who rely on these dams that there be a plan in place to replace the services these dams currently provide.
- In the meantime, the state also provided funding for the Department of Ecology to increase the state’s total dissolved gas (TDG) standards to 125%. This change will allow existing dams on the lower Snake and Columbia Rivers to spill more water over the top, which greatly increases the survival of juvenile salmon making their way to the ocean.
- The budget also gave the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) funds to develop rules to enforce the Fishways, Flows, and Screens law. Under state law, water diversion projects and dams are required to have these structures to protect salmon and other wildlife. If these aren’t in place, WDFW has the authority to issue citations requiring compliance.
- WDFW also got funds so they can identify barriers most impacting salmon runs orcas rely on and prioritize them for mitigation. Given limited resources and the alarming decline of the southern residents, it’s critical that the state remove the barriers that will benefit the orcas first.
Salmon habitat restoration got a boost, but more is needed.
For years, salmon habitat protection and restoration projects have been sorely underfunded. The funding needs are great, and while the state didn’t fully funded salmon recovery this year, it took a big step in the right direction.
- One of the most important programs to restore habitat in the Salish Sea is the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration (PSAR) fund. This program provides funding for large-scale estuary restoration projects aimed at recovering salmon. When Governor Inslee announced his budget for orca recovery, it only would have funded one of the 11 priority PSAR projects. Both the House and the Senate dug deeper, each chamber providing funding for two of PSAR’s projects. In the end, the state gave PSAR almost $50 million, the second largest appropriation in the program’s history, which funds PSAR’s top three projects: one to remove a dam on the middle fork of the Nooksack River, and two others to restore floodplain habitat on both the Cedar and Dungeness Rivers. While we ended up with more money for PSAR than we initially though we would get, there are still eight large-scale, shovel, ready, and federally-approved projects that will not get funding this year.
- The Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project (PSNERP) received $7.8 million to match federal dollars that will fund major habitat restoration projects in the Duckabush Estuary, North Fork Skagit River Delta, and Nooksack River Delta. The Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program (ESRP) also received $10 million to provide grants to local partners working to protect and restore nearshore ecosystems throughout Puget Sound.
- The Salmon Recovery Funding (SRF Board) received $25 million, which will be matched dollar for dollar with federal funds. This provides $50 million total for salmon recovery programs. While this is a large investment, the total need for SRF Board projects is $90 million.
- WDFW also received funding to enforce the new shoreline armoring law and to increase the review of shoreline armoring proposals to protect nearshore habitat, which is where young salmon grow and mature.
There’s funding to deal with predators, just not the ones you’re thinking of.
Southern resident orcas aren’t the only ones who eat salmon. Over 100 species rely on salmon (at one point of their life) as a major source of food. With declining salmon runs, there is fewer food to go around. Because of this, the Orca Task Force and politicians throughout the state called for more efforts to reduce other salmon-predators. While seals and sea lions grabbed several headlines this last year, the legislature decided to focus instead on combating another salmon-predator.
- This past year, many people throughout the northwest blamed declining salmon numbers on seals and sea lions (collectively called pinnipeds). But there is no evidence that culling pinnipeds helps recover salmon (in fact, most lethal control of predators like bears, wolves, and cougars exacerbates problems). Fortunately, the state declined to spend its limited dollars to develop plans to kill these native predators.
- Instead of targeting a native predator, the state is increasing efforts to remove invasive fish that eat juvenile salmon. The habitat created by dams is perfect habitat for invasive salmon-predators like bass, catfish, and northern pikeminnow that like slow, warm water. Fortunately, the state passed legislation that increased catch limits for these invasive fish (so anglers can aid in removal efforts). WDFW also got additional funding to reduce populations of these invasive fish.
Pollution prevention and clean up gets funded.
Southern resident orcas are one of the most polluted marine mammals in the world, and pollution destroys habitat salmon need to grow and survive. By reducing pollution entering our waters, we can increase both the quantity and quality of salmon available to the orcas.
- The state’s chemical action plans were fully funded, allowing the Department of Ecology to reduce sources of harmful toxics before they enter our waterways.
- The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has two programs to remove big sources of pollution: derelict vessels and creosote pilings. The legislature provided DNR with $2.5 million to remove large derelict vessels this biennium and plans to provide another $4 million in the next budget. The department also got over $4 million to remove creosote-treated pilings that were used to construct docks (creosote protects the wood from rot and water damage) and severely contaminated the estuary and bays.
- The biggest win, though, was in addressing polluted stormwater runoff, which is the largest source of pollution impacting the Salish Sea. The legislature passed SB 5993, the Model Toxics Control Act Revenue Reform bill, which reallocated funds to create a new dedicated revenue stream to the Stormwater Financial Assistance Program (SFAP). This program provides grants to local governments for stormwater prevention projects, like the raingardens we help install through our Orcas Love Raingardens program.
More is being done to reduce vessel disturbance.
Like all cetaceans, orcas rely on echolocation to communicate with each other and find their food. By reducing underwater noise, we can make it easier for orcas to find the limited food out there.
- WDFW received about $1.3 million to enforce new vessel speed and distance regulations. This will allow for more officers to spend more time on the water, which has been shown to drastically decrease incidents and violations.
- WDFW also has funding to develop rules like number of boats, time around whales, and distance away for the whale watch industry. The department will also create licenses for commercial whale watchers, which will help generate some additional funding for WDFW.
WDFW doesn’t get the financial resources or stability it needs to do its job.
The biggest let down in the budget this year was the lack of support for WDFW. This department is the primary state agency overseeing salmon and orca recovery, yet they have been struggling financially for years.
- Heading into this year, WDFW had a deficit of $31 million. Hoping to reduce this, the department proposed increasing fishing and hunting license fees, which was estimated to raise somewhere between $15–17 million. Sadly, these fee increases, which were in the House’s original budget, were not approved. The department was allocated just $24 million, leaving them $7 million in the red. It’s unclear what functions will be cut, but WDFW created a list of the programs most at-risk of elimination.
- In addition to running a deficit for years, WDFW also does not have permanent, dedicated funding for its operation. Most other state agencies have a specific amount of money that is guaranteed to be allocated to them every year. This allows agencies to do more long-term planning and increases the stability of programs. Without it, WDFW starts from $0 every biennium when it makes its budget requests to the legislature. While the Senate’s budget would have given the department this stability, it was left out of the final budget deal.
Did we leave money on the table?
Paying for conservation programs is challenging, especially in Washington. While the legislature took several steps to increase revenue and better balance the state’s tax code, they failed to pass Governor Inslee’s proposed capital gains tax. This tax would have affected 42,000 of the wealthiest Washingtonians and would have raised almost $1 billion in fiscal year 2021 alone. As we struggle to fund orca and salmon recovery (alongside finding funding for other important government functions), Washington will need to consider finding new sources of revenue.
In a nutshell…
…the budget was pretty good for orcas, but we still weren’t able to fund all that was needed. For years, we have underfunded our natural resource agencies and programs. This year, the state started to reverse that tendency, but despite the investments made, salmon and orca recovery is still “in the red.” We need to continue the trend of taking steps forward and promoting bold action, finish the work that remains, and build on our successes to ensure the long-term survival of orcas.