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Rep. Derek Kilmer speaks to Puget Sound groups during a previous ‘Day on the Hill’ event. Photo by Tessa Francis.

Puget Sound ‘Day on the Hill’ kicks off in D.C.

Puget Sound Institute senior writer Christopher Dunagan is in Washington, D.C. covering this week’s “Puget Sound Day on the Hill” event.

By Christopher Dunagan

WASHINGTON, D.C. — About 80 leaders involved in restoring Puget Sound to ecological health have been gathering here in the nation’s Capitol since last night to meet with federal lawmakers and agency officials.

It’s the fifth year of the so-called “Puget Sound Day on the Hill.” This year, the event is combined with the annual “Salmon Day on the Hill,” which began this morning when salmon experts from the Northwest met with officials from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Erik Neatherlin, executive coordinator for the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office, was able to describe 11 projects in Washington state that are part of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which works with farmers and other landowners to improve soil conditions, water quality and salmon habitat, among other things.

As with many federal grant programs, the funding provided by NRCS is a critical part of the overall effort to restore watersheds and improve salmon habitat throughout the state, Neatherlin said. For the 11 programs in Washington state, $50 million in federal funds has been matched with more than $90 million in state and local money.

The Day on the Hill provides an important forum for sharing information about the goals and accomplishments of the various projects — from the Palouse River watershed in Eastern Washington to the Puyallup River watershed in South Puget Sound, according to Neatherlin. It is also an opportunity to figure out new ways that people with diverse interests — from fishing to farming — can work together.

Other meetings of the salmon delegation will include discussions with the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as members of Congress and their staffers.

The Puget Sound meetings, focused more on northwestern Washington, will begin Wednesday morning following a reception tonight. They will cover a wide variety of issues, from water quality to habitat to endangered orcas.

The meetings, in both large and small groups, provide a chance to thank congressional officials for their past support of Puget Sound recovery while updating them on future projects, said Laura Blackmore, the new executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, which coordinates recovery of the inland waterway.

Beginning in 2017, White House budgets proposed eliminating key funds for Puget Sound recovery, including the National Estuary Program and Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund. Congress has maintained much of the funding, which is a small but significant part of the overall recovery effort, Blackmore said.

For every federal dollar spent on the effort, about $30 is provided by local, state or tribal investments in Puget Sound, she noted. With new financial commitments this year from the Washington Legislature, it is more important than ever to maintain the federal portion of the funding.

“Our congressional delegation tirelessly supports the federal investments needed for Puget Sound and salmon recovery,” Blackmore said in a news release.

Participants in Puget Sound Day on the Hill represent a wide range of interests, including state and local governments, Puget Sound treaty tribes, environmental groups and various businesses.

Mindy Roberts, director of Puget Sound Programs for Washington Environmental Council, said the value of sharing information with everyone involved will have lasting effects on efforts to recover Puget Sound.

“This week,” she said, “I’m proud to be part of a group of over 80 people speaking to the importance of federal funds for Puget Sound recovery.”