Satsop veto

The Satsop River cuts into a corn field in southwest Washington. Gov. Jay Inslee has vetoed legislation directing natural resource agencies to look at whether removing gravel from the river could save farmland and benefit fish.

OLYMPIA — A proposal to protect eroding farmland in southwest Washington by taking gravel from the Lower Satsop River in Grays Harbor County was vetoed May 8 by Gov. Jay Inslee.

In a veto message, Inslee said the sediment-removal project did not belong in a bill intended to supply orcas with more salmon. Inslee deleted the pilot project, along with ones in Snohomish and Whatcom counties, before signing the rest of the bill.

Terry Willis, who has been losing land as gravel builds up and diverts the Satsop River, was on a tractor planting corn when she learned about the veto.

“I’m livid about this,” she said. “Dumping our soil on top of fish is not the answer to saving salmon.”

The pilot projects were intended to test whether removing gravel to save farms could also help fish by creating cooler pools of water and keeping shade trees from being ripped downriver. Numerous resource agencies would have been involved in planning and approving the work.

Environmental groups and Indian tribes objected, saying sediment-removal projects didn’t belong in a bill that otherwise stiffened restrictions on disturbing riverbeds.

The bill was branded as implementing the recommendations of a governor’s task force on saving orcas. Since the projects weren’t a recommendation, they shouldn’t be in the bill, Inslee said at a signing ceremony.

The governor also vetoed a section that made higher civil penalties for disturbing riverbeds dependent on the pilot projects staying in the bill. Inslee said he will direct Fish and Wildlife to write a rule to adopt the stiffer fines anyway. Fines would go from $100 a day to $10,000 per violation.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, said in an email he was disappointed “to see a valuable component of the bill unilaterally removed.”

“I believed I had negotiated a balanced solution to a major threat to area landowners and public infrastructure,” he said.

“Looking the other way is not going to make the problem go away. The flooding is going to continue, and everything we’ve seen in that area indicates it will only get worse as time goes on.”

House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Brian Blake, whose district includes the Lower Satsop River, was cool to the pilot project.

Blake, an Aberdeen Democrat, said that removing sediment from one section of the river was separate from an ongoing effort to reduce flooding and erosion in the basin. The pilot project could have complicated that effort, he said.

Willis said she’s also hopeful the erosion can be stopped by local planners. However, the pilot projects could have demonstrated that removing gravel can benefit fish, said Willis, a former county commissioner and county Farm Bureau president.

“These pilot projects would have been a huge leap forward for a long-term solution for all the rivers in Western Washington,” she said.

In his veto message, Inslee said putting the projects in the orca bill was “unrelated, unnecessary and unfortunate.” He accused lawmakers of intentionally impeding his veto authority by tying the projects to the higher fines.

“Watershed solutions should come from local efforts, and I encourage people living in these communities to work collaboratively with their neighbors, local governments, salmon recovery and agricultural preservation organizations to find effective local solutions,” he wrote.

The Washington Farm Bureau has lobbied for gravel-removal pilot projects to protect valleys.

“It’s where the farmers live,” director of government relations Tom Davis said. “We just haven’t been able to get any approval for these types of projects.”

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