Environmental laws escape with no major rollbacks



OLYMPIA -- The 2002 Legislature brought major budget cuts to natural resources agencies and few environmental advances.

But there was no major rollback of environmental laws.

That was the assessment of legislative leaders, environmental groups and state agency officials Friday as they sifted through the budget cuts and legislative bills from the just-completed session.

"There was a lot of bravado, but in the end, legislators didn't vote to reduce environmental regulations," said Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Thurston County.

Budget cuts

However, the state agencies representing parks, natural resources, fish and wildlife, and ecology, which were receiving about 1.6 percent of the state's general fund money, had their funds slashed 8.6 percent, according to Josh Baldi, lobbyist for the Washington Environmental Council.

"The budget situation was as bad or a little worse than we had feared," Baldi said. "The pain in natural resource agency cuts was disproportionate to other state agencies."

"This is the way a lot of environmental battles play out," Fraser said. "Opponents of environmental regulation go after it through the budget."

For instance, the state Department of Ecology faces a $680,000 cut in its shorelands program.

An Ecology rewrite of shoreline rules last year raised a firestorm of opposition from farmers, rural property owners, developers and others who saw it as a major land grab.

Fraser added that a bill to exempt agriculture from all Shoreline Management Act regulations passed the Legislature and awaits a decision by the governor to sign it or veto it.

"I vigorously oppose that bill," she said.

Overall, Ecology faces $18.3 million in budget cuts and relinquished general fund money that is made up in part through transfers from water quality and toxic cleanup accounts, agency chief financial officer Nancy Stevenson said.

Environmentalists and others questioned this budget-balancing approach used on natural resource agencies by lawmakers, since it exposes those accounts to future shortages.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife took an $11.6 million hit in the general fund, agency Deputy Director Larry Peck said.

The agency was left to compete with other groups to recover some of the money through grants funneled through the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board.

Nearly $500,000 used to monitor Puget Sound marine fish, contaminated sediment and compliance with shoreline laws was chopped from the budget.

"Marine fish monitoring is completely gone," lamented Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound. "These are fish on the brink of extinction."

The McAllister Creek fish hatchery in the Nisqually Valley will be closed as part of the budget cuts.

Water rights

Heading into the session, Gov. Gary Locke's water policy group, along with some legislators and interest groups, hoped to see comprehensive water law reform that began last year continue in this session to ensure enough water in the future for fish, people and agriculture.

It didn't happen.

Instead, House Bill 2993 bit off baby pieces of a thorny natural resource problem.

It allows for the reuse of water from industrial processes and creates an account to collect federal money for new water storage projects.

"It's just a tiny bill that says we're going to continue work in the water group," said Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient.

The industrial water reuse section of the bill could aid Miller Brewing Co. in its bid to treat and reuse the wastewater it generates at the Tumwater brewery, Fraser said.

Language in the original bill to set in-stream flows in 17 watersheds where water for fish and people is in short supply was stripped away.

"A weak bill like this is better than a bad bill," offered Karen Allston, executive director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

The Legislature also:

- Continued funding at $1.4 million to keep a rescue tug at Neah Bay from September to June to respond to vessels in distress before they run adrift and spill oil.

- Passed a bill that establishes a boat registration and license fee to pay for the disposal of der-elict vessels. The lack of funding to deal with derelict vessels was highlighted by the sinking of two vessels in Budd Inlet this winter.

- Agreed to update the state's energy strategy and established a climate change data center at the Washington State University Energy Office in Olympia.

John Dodge covers the environment and energy


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