Agencies compete for state dollars to save southern resident orcas

RENTON, Wash. -- We now have the orca task force’s plan to save our southern residents from extinction but what we don’t yet know is how much the recommendations would cost.

The fight over state dollars has already started, with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources asking for $90 million in the next two years for aquatic habitat restoration.

Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said the orca deaths this summer have sent a message that more needs to be done to prevent extinction.

"This was the wake up call and it said time is running out," Franz said.

She said the time is now to double down on restoring and protecting salmon habitat.

"We’ve done a lot of restoration protection throughout many areas, but I don’t think we’ve done it at the aggressive and significant scale that we need to," she said.

That scale is spelled out in her latest budget proposal to the state legislature.

In the last biennium, DNR requested $55 million for aquatic restoration.

This biennium, they’re asking for $90 million, a 62 percent jump.

The significant ask signals the beginning of a competition for state dollars to help the orca, and the looming decisions for the legislature on which agencies and nonprofits will best achieve the dozens of recommendations put forward by the governor’s orca task force.

"We’re saying that our agency is committed and ready to step up and we’re ready to deliver on our responsibilities at a heightened level so that we can protect those salmon and the orcas," Franz said.

She’s met media on Bird Island at Gene Coulon Park in Renton to show what DNR's restoration dollars can do. Freshly-hatched salmon from the Cedar River call this part of Lake Washington home before they head out to sea.

The 2-year project dramatically changed the landscape of this tiny island near a Boeing factory. Before restoration, the shoreline was eroding, people disturbed the water's edge and there was debris and 103 tons of concrete on the shore. It was uninhabitable for young Chinook salmon -- the concrete benefiting predator fish instead.

A little more than $1 million later, the newly restored Bird Island habitat reflects striking that balance between urbanization and wildlife.

It's a balance they hope to strike over and over by eliminating fish passage barriers, removing derelict vessels and protecting aquatic habitat across the state.

The budget request includes $22 million in operating costs and $68 million in capital projects.

The state legislature will begin deciding who gets what resources in January.