Federal lawmakers optimistic about Puget Sound funding


By Christopher Dunagan

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Optimism, as related to a possible increase in funding for Puget Sound recovery, permeated discussions this week, when 80 officials from the region met with lawmakers in the nation’s capitol.

“It’s the first time in several years that we’ve actually been in a position to direct more money to Puget Sound programs,” said U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, during one of many “Puget Sound Day on the Hill” meetings.

With Democrats now in control of the House, they can draft a budget that fits their priorities for a host of projects — from civil rights legislation to funding for climate change. Of course, the challenge will be to get their issues through the Senate.

“It is really heartwarming to see the optimism that they are expressing, almost to a member,” said Stephanie Solien, vice chair of the Leadership Council, the oversight board for the Puget Sound Partnership. The Partnership coordinates the wide-ranging efforts to restore Puget Sound to ecological health.

Kilmer said he was sworn to secrecy about the actual numbers in the soon-to-be-released House appropriations bill, “but when it comes to fish funding and Puget Sound funding, we did very well.”

When Republicans controlled both the House and Senate, funding was substantially reduced for environmental programs, including money for the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which operate specific funds for improving salmon habitat and restoring major estuaries throughout the country.

The Trump administration’s proposed budget the past two years “zeroed out” funding for the Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund, which supports salmon-restoration efforts throughout the Northwest. But Republicans and Democrats worked together to restore the levels to $65 million, which is spread across five states.

Now, said Kilmer, “rather than working from a posture of trying to dig out of a hole, we are starting the conversation at a very good point.”

If the budget process works this year, Kilmer says funding for Puget Sound proposed in the House budget faces reasonably good prospects of getting through the Senate. Besides the support of Washington’s Democratic senators Patty Murray and Marie Cantwell, a number of Republican senators — including Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski — understand the importance of salmon to the Northwest.

The biggest obstacle will be to complete a budget, given the political divisions between House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, on many other issues. Not completing a budget might mean sequestration — automatic spending cuts — or another “continuing resolution” to keep the government operating under the status quo.

Nobody wants that, Kilmer said, and everybody says they are committed to a new budget before the end of the fiscal year in September. The key, he added, is to get House and Senate leaders to agree to a “cap” for the total budget, which would then allow final negotiations about where the available money would be spent.

For Puget Sound, national attention was drawn to the plight of the waterway and southern resident killer whales when Tahlequah, a mother orca, carried her dead baby on her head for 17 days. The orcas, considered to be on the verge of extinction, have helped people make a critical connection between those revered animals and the dwindling population of salmon — including chinook, their primary prey.

The governor’s task force on orcas came up with recommendations to help the Southern Residents. Those ideas were largely supported by the Legislature with new laws and funding. Now, Puget Sound officials are looking for financial assistance from the federal government.

The loss of salmon also affects the culture and traditions of Native American people, whose identity was formed around salmon over thousands of years. Through all the struggles, tribes maintain a right to fish, a right guaranteed by federal treaties and confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. That makes tribal officials a key part of the legislative discussions.

About 20 tribal leaders joined the annual “Puget Sound Day on the Hill,” which this year was combined with a separate effort called “Salmon Day on the Hill.”

“It’s not often that our treaty rights are in the vernacular of Congress,” said Ed Johnstone, an official with the Quinault Indian Nation and Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “We have a long history, going back through Congressman (Norm) Dicks and Senators (Warren) Magnuson and Scoop Jackson. We are here to help this process.”

Kilmer agreed with Johnstone that the personal connections between people and the natural world are priceless. He said some of the best moments of his life are those times he has spent outdoors with his children “enjoying nature in this incredible part of the world.”

“The main thing I want to say is thank you,” Kilmer told the group of 80 delegates gathered together Wednesday morning. “The impact that this group has had over the years is significant.”

In addition to Kilmer, the delegates from Puget Sound met as a large group with both Washington state senators as well as with Reps. Denny Heck, D-Olympia; Kim Schrier, D-Sammamish; Suzan DelBene, D-Medina; Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle; and Rick Larsen, D-Everett.

Some of the delegates met again in small groups with those lawmakers, while others joined up with other representatives from Washington state. Still others carried the message to senators and representatives from other parts of the country, talking about the importance of the Puget Sound ecosystem and how to go about restoring the waterway to a healthy condition.

— Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute.