We aren’t doing enough to protect, restore state’s salmon runs

Chris Gregoire’s last budget as governor – submitted a few weeks ago – shows the most significant commitment to Puget Sound since salmon were first listed in Puget Sound in 1999. If our next governor, Jay Inslee, and state legislative leaders follow her lead, funds for salmon restoration will increase from $26 million to $95 million.

This money could go toward projects that will unlock lost salmon habitat by restoring estuaries and making rivers health again. Tribes, nonprofits and local governments would spend this money to execute locally written plans to ensure places where salmon already thrive are protected forever.

Unfortunately, this increase would only get us on our way to the kind of funding we really need to bring salmon back.

If you added up the cost of all the projects that local watershed groups have in their three-year plans, current spending would only fund less than a third. While we need more than $330 million a year, we’ve only been spending around $100 million from all of our (including state) sources.

Even as we spend less than we need, the problem for salmon is getting worse.

The treaty tribes in Western Washington recently released a report (nwifc.org/sow) that found that development is still eating up more habitat than we can protect or restore. The tribal State of Our Watershed’s report concluded that our current laws just aren’t doing a good job of protecting habitat.

What we’re doing to the Puget Sound shoreline is a great way to illustrate this. Between 2005 and 2010 we lost six miles of Puget Sound shoreline to armoring (shore erosion-control practices using hardened structures) even though we took out miles of shoreline bulkheads.

If we continue this trend – losing habitat and underfunding restoration – what we’ll end up with is a few museum-piece salmon runs that don’t support fishing. This isn’t acceptable. The goal of salmon recovery is harvestable populations.

Being able to catch a salmon or buy a locally harvested fish is a central part of our regional heritage. Salmon should continue to have an impact on the way of life here, as a regional icon and a source of food. Relegating salmon to the significance of a rare species in a zoo is hardly a worthwhile goal.

Granted, I’m advocating for more spending on salmon habitat when our state is faced with a seemingly endless list of priorities. But salmon recovery is one of the few areas where there is little question about what needs to be done. We have the plans and we know the issues; we just lack the will and funding to make it happen.

We need to make a concerted effort to explore funding sources specifically to restore environmental health. We need to take a harder look at options such as a regional flush tax or local watershed investment districts. More local-option, watershed investment districts would allow local communities to tax themselves to save salmon.

We clearly aren’t doing enough. For more than 10 years we’ve looked the problem in the eye and set ambitious goals. Now is the time to explore creative options and start doing what we need to do to restore our salmon and heal Puget Sound.