Satsop River erosion

Western Washington farmer Steve Willis looks at the Satsop River in Grays Harbor County cut into his corn field. Gravel accumulating on the far side of the river is forcing it to wash out his farmland.

OLYMPIA — Pilot projects to remove river gravel to keep farmland from washing away have surfaced in legislation to help orcas, raising concerns from environmental groups that make passing the bill a high priority, but oppose the projects.

The Senate on Wednesday voted 26-20 to pass House Bill 1579. The measure stiffens restrictions on construction projects that might affect fish. It’s a centerpiece of the Inslee administration’s effort to produce more salmon for orcas.

The bill had previously passed the House, but was amended in the Senate to authorize erosion-control projects in Grays Harbor, Whatcom and Snohomish counties.

The projects could include removing gravel, providing fish still have enough for habitat. The section was motivated, at least in part, by the rapid loss of farmland last winter along the Lower Satsop River in Grays Harbor County.

“The Satsop had a long history of dredging, but since the dredging stopped, the buildup of sediment has clogged the river’s main channel,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, said in a written statement. “As a result, flooding has become an increasing threat to area homes, farms and businesses.”

Previous Legislatures had considered and ultimately rejected proposals to try removing gravel in a fish-friendly way on the Satsop River.

Former Grays Harbor-Pacific County Farm Bureau president Terry Willis, who has been losing land to the river, said she was excited to see the idea revived in the orca bill.

The gravel-swelled river has sent dirt, plants and trees down the river, muddying the water and scouring the banks of vegetation.

“It’s not a stretch of the imagination that this pilot project and gravel management will help the salmon population,” Willis said. “I think it will lead to something extremely positive.”

House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Brian Blake, who represents Grays Harbor County, said he hoped the pilot project wouldn’t interfere with ongoing efforts to reduce erosion and flooding all along the river.

“I probably wouldn’t have put it in this bill, but it’s there now,” said Blake, D-Aberdeen.

“I think the partners are already interested in finding a solution in that reach of the river,” he said. “It’s more complicated than just removing some gravel.”

To plan the pilot projects, the State Conservation Commission would convene state agencies, conservation districts, counties and farm groups, and consult with tribes.

The goals would include removing gravel that diverts rivers onto farmland, but also provide deeper and cooler holes for fish.

At hearings, environmental groups and tribal officials have complained that the projects shouldn’t be in the bill.

Fish and Wildlife Assistant Director Jeff Davis said the bill doesn’t mandate that gravel be removed. “I think people anticipate it’s a dredging-only bill. I think there are a lot of tools in the language,” he said.

The Washington Farm Bureau supports the pilot projects. “It’s protecting farmers, it’s protecting farm ground, and we think we can protect fish as well,” said Tom Davis, director of government relations.

The pilot projects are a side issue to the bill’s thurst. Senate Republicans opposed the legislation, arguing it would give Fish and Wildlife too much authority to penalize landowners and stop work that’s removed from the water’s edge.

The House and Senate will have to reconcile differences in the versions passed by each chamber.

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