Car tab initiative could cut into orca recovery

SEATTLE -- The most visible statewide effort to save the southern resident orcas from extinction has officially sunset while a dark cloud looms. The governor's orca task force released its final report Friday - which urges more recovery funding - on the same week voters elected to slash billions in state revenue.

State Initiative 976, an effort to cut car tabs to $30, is passing after Tuesday's election. State analyses estimate Washington will lose more than $4 billion in revenue over the next six years. Task force members wonder what that will mean for saving the southern resident orcas.

"That is money that is not going to be going to removing culverts," said Amy Windrope, deputy director of Washington Fish and Wildlife. "If we don't have fish being able to make it underneath our underpasses and into the streams we aren't going to have more Chinook . We aren't going to be able to maintain the orca population."

After a years-long legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Washington state is obligated to fix or replace hundreds of culverts that block fish migration. The state Department of Transportation estimates complying with that court order will cost around $3.7 billion.

This past year, Gov. Jay Inslee proposed spending $275 million for the 2019-2021 biennium and $700 million per biennium starting in 2021 to address the problem. When the legislature tried reducing that funding to a little more than $100 million, Inslee used executive authority to ramp up spending by the department back to $275 million.

"But this is just a one-time down payment on the multi-billion dollar tab legislators left unpaid," he said at the time.

It's unclear exactly how natural resources and recovery projects will be impacted now that transportation is facing serious shortfalls with I-976. However, the governor's office told Q13 News that agency cuts will not include fish passage projects, saying WSDOT "will continue moving forward on culverts as the deadline for the federal court injunction is imminent."

The governor has asked agencies impacted by I-976 to provide him with a list of recommendations moving forward with less revenue, according to the governor's acting communications director, Tara Lee.

Along with culvert repairs, the transportation budget also includes money to upgrade state ferries from diesel to hybrid-electric, another recommendation of the governor's orca task force from Year 1.

In looking at the orca task force's focus on population growth and climate change in its Year 2 report, it's clear setbacks in regional transportation advances concern them.

"It's a long chain to get to the orca, but you can build that chain very simply if you just start thinking about each of the steps that are going to not be funded," Windrope said.

"I don't think people realize that a lot of the problems that we see with habitat damage and with contaminants going in from roadways, you can trace that back into our transportation infrastructure," said Mindy Roberts of the Washington Environmental Council.

According to the task force's final report, the critically-endangered southern resident orcas "are struggling from a lack of Chinook salmon, compounded by the stresses from vessel noise and disturbance, contaminants in their ecosystem and the long-term threats to their survival from climate change, ocean acidification and human population growth."

In the report, the task force put forward 49 recommendations for the governor to consider, including proposing a special orca recovery group to continue the work of the task force and make sure the recommendations are implemented.

"In order to save this critically endangered species we need to think big, and while the state has made progress, there is a lot more work to be done," said Robb Krehbiel of Defenders of Wildlife. "Gov. Inslee and the state legislature must turn these new recommendations into law while increasing our investment in recovery actions from the year-one report."

"This state always has a struggle funding the things it needs to fund," orca task force co-chair Stephanie Solien said. "We've got to look for a sustained funding mechanism for the orcas and salmon and to save Puget Sound."

When the task force started its work in early 2018, there were 78 orcas. Today, just 73 remain.

"We are honestly facing a crisis at this point," Roberts said.

"Recovering orca is going to be a lifetime," Windrope said. "Each of us who live in the state of Washington needs to see it as a lifetime's endeavor."