Survive the Sound: Clock ticking for salmon-saving projects in Mason County

MASON COUNTY, Wash. -- The clock is ticking for several projects in Mason County that could help our endangered salmon and Puget Sound orcas.

Residents and elected leaders say the problem is lip service: the Legislature and governor not putting enough money where their mouths have been. 

Mason County has plenty of great habitat for salmon, but the one thing this rural county doesn’t have a lot of is money. Folks in Mason County say they’ve been dealing with a river in crisis for more than a decade.

The Skokomish River is the most flood-prone in the whole state. The river is the biggest source of fresh water into Hood Canal. The massive natural waterway which is critical to a healthy Puget Sound.

“It’s getting a little scarier for me,” says Mason County resident Justin Baze, “seeing that it’s getting worse every year.”

Every flood season, third generation resident Baze keeps a close watching on the Skokomish River. It is currently taking dead aim at his property—eating away at his backyard with every flood.

“If it was to get worse,” says Baze, “I’d have to consider moving.”

Those floods for Baze and his fellow neighbors in the Skokomish River Valley now can happen nine months a year, keeping them from routing things we take for granted in many other parts of the state like work, school, and church. And preventing things like emergency vehicles from getting to them.

“Something needs to be done here,” says Baze. “And I’ve seen it get worse over the years that I’ve been here. And there’s fish in the road. I have fish in my front yard every year.”

It’s an almost comedic sight that you’ll even see on the evening news. But for Joseph Pavel with the Skokomish Tribe—it’s a sign of a river in trouble.

“Yeah, it’s a crisis,” says Pavel. “It’s a show of the force of nature when it first started appearing.”

Of the hundreds and hundreds of years that Joseph Pavel’s tribe has been in this region, he says finding fish in odd places has only been happening for about 15 of them.

As the natural resources director for his tribe, he says a lot of the flooding is due to humans building levees. He says they’re channeling the river faster and higher in the rainy season—and also shallower, slower, and warmer in the summer. All of that is bad news for migrating salmon and our endangered southern resident killer whales that rely on them for food.

“There ought to be a return off that investment on behalf of our natural resources,” says Pavel.

For Pavel, he says the wealth of Washington state has been built on withdrawals -- an economy started on harvesting timber and minerals and built on the backs of salmon, orcas and other wildlife. He says it’s time to make deposits and invest back in all nature has given us.

“It’s time to hit the ground running and start the building,” says Pavel. “We’ve done our homework.”

There are six projects that have been proposed to fix a lot of the issues in the Skokomish River Valley. Five of them are habitat improvements, and a sixth would raise portions of Skokomish Valley Road to connect several salmon habitats.

The six projects look to have benefits for humans and fish alike. But rural Mason County needs money, so it’d be up to the legislature to have money flow this direction. The total costs would be about $11 million, but so far the Legislature has only allocated $6.1 million.

With only days left in the current legislative session, the state House and state Senate are finalizing budget numbers. It seems the Mason County projects could fall short of the funding they’d need.

State Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Mason County, says he thinks he and his fellow legislators will be able to shake loose a bit of funding for Mason County. The $5 million is only a drop in the budget of Washington State’s roughly $3.7 billion budget.

State Rep. Drew MacEwen, a Mason County Republican, also doesn’t see any new money in this session for flood control. But he says because the projects are tied so closely to helping salmon and orcas, he’s confident to be able to make up the additional funding in a supplemental budget next year.

The legislature has to conclude by Sunday, April 28.