Salmon and agriculture: A quest to live in harmony - Local lawmakers spearhead effort to see that fish and farms survive

Frank Varga / Skagit Valley Herald


Skagit Valley, WA - Like many people, state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen believes fish and farms can and should coexist.

"Our whole goal is to preserve both the salmon runs and the farming in the Skagit Valley," said the Camano Island Democrat, whose district includes the agricultural area west of Interstate 5 and south of Highway 20.

But Haugen has introduced 10 bills in the Senate that are firmly on the side of farmers, defending them against the efforts of some environmental groups -- including the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Swinomish Tribe -- to restore habitat for endangered Chinook salmon.

Haugen's bills run the gamut, from minor tweaks in existing law to creation of a new board to pursue salmon-recovery efforts.

She has been joined on four of the bills by Rep. Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, whose district includes most of the agricultural area west of I-5 and north of Highway 20. In three cases, Quall filed exactly the same bill, and in the fourth case, Quall's bill would have the same effect but with different language.
The self-regulating tide gate on Edison Slough, the only one in the state, has become a lightning rod for local farmers. Bills introduced in the Legislature would stop more of the gates from being installed.
Frank Varga / Skagit Valley Herald

The bills are among hundreds that have been filed. Each bill must make it through committees in each house, then win approval by the House and Senate before landing on the governor's desk. Only a small percentage of the bills filed in any session make it all the way through the process to become law.

Haugen said she expects to get a few of the bills passed and signed by Locke.

"We expect a good share of them to get through," she said. "At this point I couldn't tell you how many."

Both lawmakers are intent on protecting tide gates from any changes. The gates are metal flaps that allow water to drain off the land at low tide while keeping saltwater out at high tide.

Local farmers say the tide gates are essential for farming. Without them, it would be difficult to keep crops, and especially tulip bulbs, from drowning. Also, saltwater intrusion would be deadly for many crops.
Kirby Johnson walks along a blind channel slough on Fir Island, near the North Fork of the Skagit River. Johnson's twin brother, Curtis, is an outspoken advocate of digging more channels here to provide fish habitat. Two local legislators have introduced bills to do just that.
Frank Varga / Skagit Valley Herald

But tide gates also keep fish out of the sloughs that line the shore, many of which used to be estuary habitat -- the zone where fresh and salt water mix. Estuaries are crucial for juvenile Chinook to bulk up their size before heading out to sea.

Under the current law, any blockage of a stream, including a tide gate, must provide some system for fish passage. The law wasn't enforced by the old Department of Fisheries (which is now part of the Department of Fish and Wildlife), and current enforcement only happens when a permit is issued for repair or replacement of a gate, said Bob Everitt, regional director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The usual method of letting fish through is by replacing a conventional one-way tide gate with a self-regulating tide gate, which lets some salt water in as the tide rises. Only one has been installed in the state, at Edison. That gate has been blamed for raising the water table and has become a rallying point for farmers in the Skagit River delta.

Bills from Haugen and Quall would exempt tide gates from the requirement to allow fish passage. And if ever a self-regulating tide gate is installed, the state would have to compensate landowners for any changes it caused to their land.

Haugen said she believes the existing law already exempts tide gates from the fish passage requirements that dams must comply with, but her bill would make that exemption clearer for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Everitt said the controversy over tide gates in Skagit County had already prompted the department to consider a moratorium on installing new self-regulating tide gates. In the meantime, his department is proposing a Skagit Tide Gate Strategy, a review of existing gates aimed at determining where the benefits to salmon would be greatest. Once the review is complete, the department would look for landowners willing to sell or lease land to be converted into estuary habitat.

The tide gate review program wouldn't have been proposed if not for Haugen, Quall and the farmers, said Mike Shelby, manager of the Western Washington Agricultural Association, a group of Skagit delta farmers.

"They're acting like this is something they've been working on for a long time, but we didn't hear anything about it until this legislation," Shelby said.

The farmers have what they believe is a better idea -- create new habitat projects on public land before turning to private landowners. One of the proposals from Haugen and Quall would do just that. The bill would create a nine-member board to lead the so-called Skagit Salmon Habitat Enhancement Initiative, a program to protect and restore habitat.

The bill points to areas outside the dike system, which keeps the sea at bay. The idea is one that farmer Curtis Johnson, president of the local Agricultural Association, has been promoting.

Johnson points to hundreds of acres of tidelands on the southwest side of Fir Island. After the dikes were built in the late 1800s, sediment kept piling up as it washed down the river, adding to the island. Tidal action has created dozens of ditches, and a drag line could be used to create dozens more -- some connecting to the Skagit's North Fork, others left as blind channels.

Everitt, the Fish and Wildlife regional director, said he agrees that public land should be used for recovering salmon.

"That's really not a bad argument," he said. "The Department of Fish and Wildlife should be a good model of doing fish restoration. One of the problems is, we don't have that much land in Skagit County."

He estimated the department owns about 14,000 acres outside the dikes, but less than 1,000 acres on the inside.

Alix Foster, a lawyer for the Swinomish Tribe, agreed.

"I don't think the tribe has any problems with doing restoration on public land," she said. "It's that there isn't enough public land in the county."

Still, there are some good opportunities, Everitt said. The Deepwater Slough restoration project, completed in 2000 on the Skagit River's South Fork, is an example of what can be done. There, some dikes were torn down to allow the river to use a slough as a distributary.

Although the bill doesn't specify where the projects are to be carried out, Haugen said the North Fork area is a good place to start.

The last of the four bills shared by Haugen and Quall would specify that tide gates and drainage ditches are tools for flood control. "We consider that a technical clarification," Haugen said. "We always felt they (diking and drainage districts) had the authority to do that, but it needed to be clarified."

Shelby said increasing development has made that power necessary, as more homes, roads and businesses mean more impervious surface, which sends more water running off onto the floor of the valley.

Drainage districts originally formed to help farmers drain surface water from their fields now have much more water to worry about, he said.

While Quall chose to limit his efforts to tide gates this year, Haugen has several bills that would make other changes in how fish recovery is managed.

One bill would require installation of a fishway on the barrier dam at the Samish Hatchery -- a frequent political target of angry farmers, especially when employees harvest salmon to take their eggs and sperm for the next generation of hatchery fish. Farmers along the Samish River complain they are being forced to make changes and give up some land to protect salmon in the river, but the hatchery's operation means there are no salmon to protect.

But Al Kehrli, manager of the hatchery, said there's already a fishway there, and it's already open whenever the operation isn't capturing returning stocks. Only a few species are captured at the hatchery, and the rest are already allowed to migrate upstream. He said the bill wouldn't require any changes to the way the hatchery works.

Another of Haugen's bills would make the director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife a governor-appointed position. "The reason we do that is to put the director at the cabinet level," Haugen said.

Currently, the director is appointed by the nine-member Fish and Wildlife Commission, who are appointed by the governor to six-year terms -- two years longer than the governor's.

"There's no real accountability there," Hauden said. "He doesn't answer to the governor."

Will Roehl, a Bellingham lawyer who serves as chair of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, disagrees. In fact, he pointed out, the governor appointed the director until 1995, when a voter-approved referendum gave the task to the commission.

"People thought the office of the director was a little too politicized," Roehl said.

Jennifer Joly, general counsel for Gov. Gary Locke, said the bill probably wouldn't make much difference in how often the governor and the director communicate, except that the director would begin to attend weekly cabinet meetings and provide more regular updates.

Haugen also has a bill that would require state agencies to put regulations and policies into effect on state lands before making local governments adopt them.

"I think that's only reasonable," Haugen said. Buffers -- strips of land taken out of production on farms to protect fish habitat -- should be implemented on state lands first, she said, and then tried on private lands.

But the bills will benefit from increasing awareness among other legislators about the value of agriculture in Skagit County, she said.

"I think there is finally a recognition of the importance of agriculture in Western Washington," she said.

James Geluso can be reached at 360-416-2146 or by e-mail at



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