Farmers resist fish estuary plan, say salt in water table will ruin them - Meanwhile, tribes argue for salmon-saving measures


FIR ISLAND, WA - 4/4/03-- A bald eagle sits on a nearby tree watching John Roozen dip his hands into rich soil. All around Roozen, thousands of vibrant, yellow daffodils dance in the wind as warm tulips sprout close by.

"This soil is in danger," Roozen says as tiny brown specks fall between the crevices of his worked-over fingers.

"If or when salt intrudes on this land, everything will die. And we will no longer produce the quality of bulbs and tulips this valley has become famous for," Roozen, owner of the multimillion dollar Washington Bulb Co., said later.

This weekend, tourists will begin their annual visits to Skagit Valley as the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival kicks off. Over a quarter-million bulbs burst with color each spring, but Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, warns this could be one of the last years the colorful display will be seen in its full glory if a plan to allow saltwater onto Skagit farmlands to increase salmon habitat is implemented.

Farmers want to maintain tide gates, which are basically one-way cork valves that keep the saltwater out of their fields. Those gates also cut off migrating salmon, which seek shelter to avoid predators and find new habitat.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has said the fish must be allowed into the gates, even if saltwater gets into the farm soil. Skagit Valley farmers have flocked to Olympia, urging lawmakers to block the plan and protect the dozens of crops they grow and the $275 million in annual revenue they yield.

Local Native American tribes -- who fish for salmon -- support the state's position. Skagit farmers face little to no regulation from a county that supports its agricultural activities and does very little to watch it, relying on state and federal regulation instead.

Skagit County is under state order to find new estuary land for chinook and other species of salmon, a compromise struck between the state and the Skagit system cooperative, a consortium of three tribes, including the upper Skagit, Swinomish and Sauk-Suiattle tribes. The Skagit River is the second-largest river in the state and has the second-largest number of wild salmon runs. The Columbia is the largest.

Haugen and other legislators have introduced legislation that would protect the farmers but would gut portions of the hydraulic code protecting fish that have been in existence since 1949.

With the aid of Republicans, her legislation has passed through the Senate, despite some contentious debate among her fellow Democrats.

Larry Wasserman, environmental services director for the consortium, believes the Legislature could overstep its bounds if it approves too many laws.

"If the Legislature passes these laws that prevent salmon recovery, it'll force the tribes to look for other legal mechanisms to ensure that they can continue to fish," Wasserman said. The tribes' salmon harvests have declined by 90 percent, he said.

The tribes both sell their harvests commercially and consume them on an-almost daily basis.

The bills would offer enormous protections to the farmers and limit the safety and protection of the fish. For instance, House Bill 1420 would allow farmers to repair their drainage systems on their own -- without permission from Fish and Wildlife. And Senate Bill 5345 would exempt those drainage ditches from becoming fish passages at all, killing the tribes' chance of creating new estuary land using farmers' land.

Also, Haugen's SB 5346 would require the state to pay farmers compensation if any of their lands were damaged by the draining system.

The state had started delegating new estuary land in Skagit Valley by pursuing fish passage into a complex network of drainage passages that had been dug deep and wide to allow farmers to keep their soil dry and above the salty water table. Huge dirt dikes block off waves of water, which would otherwise flood the fields.

Valvelike structures called tide gates prevent Fir Island from turning into a bulb-ridden sea. If there were no gates at all, said Bob Everitt, a Skagit County regional director for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, saltwater would flow inland as the river would change direction and the mouth of streams and rivers would rise. Salmon would then be able to actively use the grounds as new habitat.

Fish and Wildlife would like to see a compromise in a new tide gate that would be self-regulated. The new kind of gate allows fish passage, except it raises farmland's water tables causing possible salt intrusion into the fields of daffodils and tulips being grown nearby. Because the dirt is porous, the salt will hold and stay in the farm fields, preventing most crops from being grown.

Wasserman said the tribes are only looking for, at most, 5,000 acres of farmland along dikes to convert into new estuary land and develop into new salmon habitat.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife believes fish can thrive in farmland converted into fish habitat because of the nutrients and shelter found in the drainage ditches. Counters Mike Shelby of the Western Washington Agricultural Association, "A ditch is a ditch and it's not salmon habitat."

The tribes have said other industries and agencies -- including Puget Sound Energy, Seattle City Light and the timber industry -- have agreed to change their practices to aid salmon. The Skagit farm industry is the last holdout. The farmers' say there's a reason for that.

The Puyallup-Sumner Valley has been lost to development and the Kent-Auburn Valley can be considered an asphalt field of warehouses. More than 700 farms remain in the Skagit Valley. "We're more in touch with nature and farther away from industry than those other farms," Roozen said.

Skagit County offers more protection to the farmers than to salmon. In fact, there are currently no regulations governing what farmers can do on a county level.

The only regulations are imposed on the state and federal level, and even those limited laws are under attack, said Tom Karsh, a Skagit County planner.

Roozen's Washington Bulb Co. farms about 2,000 acres of land now and ships more than 50 million cut flowers all over the U.S. annually. He said if farmland is given to the tribes, his neighbors could very well end up being a Wal-Mart. Roozen says if farmers give an inch now, industries will take a mile.

"There's an arrogance with some, like, people are asking us, 'What do farmers know about fish?' " Roozen asks.

Responds Alex Foster, a lawyer for the tribes, "People in this tribe fish to feed their families, that's why they fish. I think they know more about fish than the farmers could ever dream of."


The P-I examines controversies over Washington's fish-protecting hydraulic code:

YESTERDAY: State officials are hard-pressed to crack down on environmental scofflaws who damage nearshore fish habitat.

P-I reporter Steven Friederich can be reached at 360-943-3993 or


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