What would you need to give up to save salmon in WA?

Washingtonians are all for increasing fish passages to save salmon and orcas — but when action conflicts with the ways we live, things get complicated.

lake with dock in foreground

The dock in Whiteman Cove at Camp Colman. The lagoon is set to be breached by the state of Washington for better fish passage. (YMCA of Greater Seattle)

The first thing you see when you enter Camp Colman, is The Lagoon.

Speckled with docks and nestled in the woods just south of Joemma Beach State Park, it’s an integral part of the 109-year-old camp run by the YMCA of Greater Seattle.

But The Lagoon — officially named Whiteman Cove — was once a thriving 29-acre estuary with free-flowing tides into and out of Case Inlet. Juvenile salmon and steelhead nestled in pockets of gravel, safely growing into ocean-faring fish, until 1962, when the Washington State Department of Fisheries (now Fish and Wildlife) turned it into a lagoon with a berm and two culverts — tubes that let fish swim through developed areas — to raise farmed fish. 

“These pocket estuaries are disproportionately important for juvenile salmon and they are, unfortunately, the types of places that have been pretty heavily impacted by development,” says Jamie Glasgow, director of science and research at Wild Fish Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation organization headquartered in Duvall. 

Camp Colman moved from its original Gig Harbor site to the site of the fish farm in the late 1960s, in part because it wanted to make use of the lagoon’s still waters for teaching water sports.

“It’s really easy for beginners to learn how to canoe and paddle board there. You’re not fighting against big currents and waves, and it’s just a really delightful experience,” says Meredith Cambre, the Y’s senior executive director for camping and outdoor leadership. Campers also gather at The Lagoon for fun campwide activities, like the Belly Flop Contest, she says. “A key piece of the camp experience is being in or on the water.” 

But while the camp was helping thousands of campers learn to safely play in the water, multiple species of salmon weren’t able to access that space. 

That conflict between endangered salmon and human development has put the camp in the center of a tumultuous, multiyear negotiation over how Washington state is fixing fish passage barriers — culverts, dams and more — to meet the needs of salmon and orcas and the state’s legal obligations to area tribes. 

How the state handles the debate over Whiteman Cove could provide insight into fish passage battles of the future, which may increasingly take place in developed areas full of people who may or may not understand the role they play in the future of these endangered fish.

Campers canoeing in Whiteman Cove at Camp Colman. (YMCA of Greater Seattle)

Campers canoeing in Whiteman Cove at Camp Colman. (YMCA of Greater Seattle)

Washington is one big barrier to fish 

Many state, federal and local government agencies, as well as private companies and landowners, have built fish passages across Washington over the past century. The system is so big that no one has a complete inventory or accounting of how they have succeeded or failed.

“I think it wasn't until the tribes pointed it out that it became something people paid attention to,” says Alex Smith, deputy supervisor for aquatics resources at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. 

According to a 2018 review by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, there are likely 18,000 to 20,000 fish passage barriers in Washington state that make it hard for salmon and steelhead to get to their spawning areas. That number is conservative: It’s been hard to estimate the number of barriers on privately owned land, and culverts designed to allow fish to swim through them can fail over time. 

Loss of fish passages and spawning areas is a leading driver of population decline of many threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead, according to scientific research

“Doing this work is part of restoring the concept that fish use these streams. This is salmon country, and if a fish has access to a stream, it’ll use it,” says Evan Lewis, program manager of King County’s fish passage restoration program. 

The state needs to fix some barriers — like the one at Camp Colman — on a shortened timeline because of a federal court battle that began in 2001, when 21 area tribes sued the state in U.S. District Court to affirm their treaty fishing rights. The tribes argued the state’s pattern of development had impaired their access to fish, with harvests dropping from more than 5 million fish a year in 1985 to about 575,000 in 1999.

In 2013, the court ordered the state through an injunction to open up more than 1,000 miles of navigable salmon habitat by repairing or removing numerous barriers by 2030.

The Squaxin Island Tribe and groups like South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group pushed to prioritize the Whiteman Cove project, which is within the tribe’s traditional fishing area, based on habitat quality, how much habitat could become available and how fixing this area would connect salmon and steelhead to other navigable areas. 

“It's a much bigger bang for the buck to restore an area like that to a tidal estuary than it is to widen a culvert and a road,” Smith says. 

Most of the fish passages impacted by the lawsuit are culverts under highways that are damaged or prevent fish passage. Fixing them doesn’t tend to evoke a strong emotional response, as the solutions usually improve transportation for both fish and people. 

Emotion and a lot of outside pressure have pushed the Camp Colman situation forward. The federal courts originally gave the Department of Natural Resources until October 2016 to fix all the culverts under its jurisdiction and the lagoon is the last barrier on its list. The highway culverts are under the purview of the Washington Department of Transportation.

“We’ve tried to be flexible in things like timelines, as long as we’re moving forward,” says Jeff Dickison, assistant director of natural resources of the Squaxin Island Tribe. “It’s a long-range process. Not everything’s going to be fixed in the beginning.” 

The Camp Colman story

The YMCA participated in a DNR study to understand how it might improve fish passage at the camp, when conversations about The Lagoon first started. “We just wanted to have dual goals the whole time: fish passage and retaining a high quality camp experience,” says Cambre, the Y’s senior executive director for camping and outdoor leadership. 

Gwen Ichinose-Bagley, the Y’s chief youth development officer, says the research and proposals the DNR created on how to handle meeting the 2013 injunction at Whiteman Cove were very thoughtful, but the Y, in collaboration with consultants, came up with its own counterproposals. Those ideas included a fish-friendly tide gate that would allow fish to travel through the lagoon while maintaining water levels.

DNR reviewed four different options — while deeming the Y's option unworkable — and landed on a plan to restore full tidal flow by breaching an 80-foot segment of the berm. The plan would remove the camp’s access road, and replace it with a 100-foot, $1.96 million bridge.

“The injunction is very broad in its language about needing to allow for passage of all fish species and all life stages. We felt the only [solution] that met that one was to remove the barrier entirely, and that a fish-friendly tide gate simply couldn't meet that standard,” the DNR’s Smith says.

When the DNR requested funding for the project, the Y launched a campaign — “Save Salmon, Save Camp” — asking alumni and friends of the Y to reach out to legislators. The Y campaign advocated removing the DNR’s plan for the lagoon from the state’s capital budget, using an argument that its fish passage didn’t fall within the definition of a culvert. The Y circulated videos claiming the DNR plan would eliminate all water-based programming and activities at Camp Colman and pushed the rejected tide gate plan as an alternative.

The Y estimates breaching the berm would turn The lagoon into mudflats 50% to 80% of the time. Cambre also says the Y wanted help adapting to the change and supporters sent hundreds of emails to lawmakers. 

They never seriously considered moving the camp, Ichinose-Bagley says. “Our preference is to stay there. It's a 100-year-old camp, and really a beautiful place. But certainly all options are on the table.” 

Smith calls the campaign one of the most vocal oppositions to a culvert project she is aware of, but also acknowledges how difficult it would be to accept losing certain perks of having waterfront property. 

“I think that can be a tough one to swallow,” Smith says. 

State Sen. David Frockt, D-North Seattle, who is the Senate’s lead capital budget writer, says he heard from a number of constituents in Seattle and Tacoma who says they wanted him to remove a planning provision in the 2021-22 capital budget to breach the Whiteman Cove berm, in favor of further exploring alternatives. Supporters of the camp says they felt like they weren’t being heard by DNR, and claimed the federal injunction shouldn’t apply to the lagoon. 

“Honestly, I didn’t fully grasp the complexity of the situation,” says Frockt, whose experience with culverts was limited to funding a barrier removal board. 

He started out in the Y’s camp — ”I was like, this is crazy, why isn’t DNR communicating with them?” he says — but then had conversations with representatives from the Squaxin Island Tribe and DNR and grew to appreciate their positions and the historic magnitude of fulfilling treaty obligations.

Frockt didn’t think the Y could successfully sue over the issue and became convinced it should pursue a compromise. His staff looked into the details and advised him that no matter what the lagoon barrier was called, what the courts will look at is that the lagoon is blocking fish passage and at some point that needs to be resolved. 

Things started turning around during this past legislative session, Ichinose-Bagley says. Without traction for removing the lagoon from the federal injunction, the Y started advocating a capital budget proviso to pay to find other ways to fix the fish passage without sacrificing water levels in the lagoon.

Ultimately, the legislature set aside $900,000 for the project, and the Y is really pleased with where things landed, Ichinose-Bagley says.

The DNR’s Smith says it felt unusual for the Legislature to get so involved — but she’s glad the department can move forward with the project.

“I spent more time on getting $900,000 on this thing than anything else I did all session, and it was a $6 billion budget,” Frockt says. “There was some pretty hard politics going on on both sides.” 

The Y is still coordinating with the DNR to provide a report to legislators by the end of the year about what it needs to keep the camp experience meaningful while the estuary is restored and to identify funding needs for next steps. 

“[The Y] has grown accustomed to the features that they have, and change is hard. I totally appreciate that. But there are times when change is necessary,” Wild Fish Conservancy’s Glasgow says, adding that the campers will learn they also will gain educational opportunities from restoring the salmon habitat. 

Cambre says that, as someone who didn’t grow up here, she hadn’t realized just how much people have developed the coasts in ways that have disadvantaged fish.

The Y currently teaches youth participants about salmon — their life cycles, their local importance and more — but is exploring ways to integrate the changed lagoon into future education plans. The ultimate fix to the lagoon may make possible lessons around how estuaries work, the importance of salmon to people and how the Y sits on land within the historic territory of area tribes. “I think there's a lot of opportunity for youth to be able to see themselves in careers within the environment,” Ichinose-Bagley says.

A practical model for the future? 

As the state and more cities and counties inventory culverts and other types of fish-unfriendly passages, they are likely to encounter other Whiteman Coves — places where improving things for fish may curtail human activities.

King County, the most populous county in Washington, doesn’t appear to have anything equivalent to the lagoon situation in its fish passage inventory, fish passage expert Lewis says. “But we definitely have a lot of dense land use and fish habitat all mixed in together,” he says. 

While most fish passage mitigation might not have as high tension, they are going to have high costs. 

State Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, stresses that it takes both money and time to put fish passage plans into practice. “It's a big challenge but I mean it's at the top of the list of priorities. So, they will get done. Other things will suffer,” Fey says.

As InvestigateWest reported in 2019, Washington is making slow progress answering the federal court ruling to deal with culverts. It had fixed 66 of 992 culverts by the end of 2018, at a pace of 11 per year. “In order to make the court-imposed deadline, that pace would have to pick up to about 84 fixes per year,” journalist Brad Shannon pointed out. By June 1, 2021, DOT had fixed at least 20 more barriers related to the injunction, opening 383 total miles of habitat.

Not every county and city with a problem culvert will be able to afford the most appealing option. State Department of Transportation data show that barrier projects average $185,000 for private landowners, $1.25 million for counties and $1.8 million for cities. The department estimates its funding needs to meet the initial injunction requirements would total about $4 billion, with each project costing $5.1 million on average. In the 2021-23 state biennial budget, $400 million went toward culvert fixes. 

For the most part in the region, Lewis says, we're still at the point where there are plenty of minimally contentious projects. But Whiteman Cove can be educational for how people might handle more complicated projects in the future. 

“As we move forward … we're going to find those harder projects are going to become more frequent 20 years down the road, after we’ve finished with the ones where interests really align,” he says. 

The Squaxin Island Tribe is currently in talks related to a very similar situation at Capitol Lake in Olympia, which used to be a free-flowing estuary on the Deschutes River. “There is a lot of interest in restoring the natural processes, but also a lot of reluctance from the public in turning what is now a freshwater lake into a tidally influenced estuary,” Glasgow says. There is a draft environmental impact statement for that project, which, while not part of the injunction, is something the Squaxin Tribe is prioritizing.

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