Skip to main content

New Washington State Law Lifts Critical-Areas Protections on Agricultural Lands

In May, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed into law a bill that will replace current critical-areas regulations that apply to agricultural lands with a bureaucratic system relying on voluntary measures to protect salmon habitat.

Many Indian tribes opposed this expensive new bureaucracy that favors maintaining agricultural “viability” over allowing salmon habitat to recover. Leaders wonder how a $35-billion-a-year agriculture industry in the state cannot afford to protect endangered species of salmon.

A significant number of streams on agricultural lands in Washington do not meet water-quality standards, and salmon runs are still listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. While this law (ESHB 1886) allows the agriculture industry to conduct business as usual, tribal, non-tribal and sport fisheries continue to be curtailed or eliminated.

This bill, developed by the William D. Ruckelshaus Center at Washington State University, unfairly tips the balance toward agricultural interests, and leaves salmon with nothing, tribal leaders say.

"The Washington State Legislature has allowed this bill a free pass out of respect of William Ruckelshaus, and his past accomplishments at the Environmental Protection Agency," said Swinomish chairman Brian Cladoosby. "But when the health of the state's streams, salmon and people are at stake, we must put politics aside. We cannot trust exclusively in laurels. We must instead rely upon science and processes that engage all interested parties, not just agriculture, which doesn't have a trustworthy track record with salmon or water quality."

Scroll to Continue

Read More

“Now Washington state has water-quality regulations in place to protect drinking water and endangered salmon habitat from the activities of developers, foresters and manufacturers,” said Cladoosby. “But there are those who believe they are above the law. We cannot have the state continue to allow the agricultural industry to avoid regulations, while expecting unsuccessful voluntary approaches.”

Under the law, the state will spend $60,000 to $120,000 for each of the next five years to pay for local planning groups, composed heavily of agricultural interests, to set voluntary measures of salmon protections.

These groups will set benchmarks with no substantial guidance from the law or from science, and self-report after as long as a decade as to whether they’re meeting those benchmarks. There is virtually no scientific oversight of whether the benchmarks are adequate to protect fish or whether the voluntary measures succeed or fail.

Tribes asked legislators to include provisions requiring compliance with state water-quality standards and salmon recovery habitat objectives, but they were rejected.

“This bill sets up a costly experiment to see if agricultural interests can protect water quality and natural resources by self-regulated voluntary steps,” said Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp. “Washington’s salmon cannot afford to wait 10 years. And we can’t afford to spend millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on an experiment that is not likely to work.”