The orca recovery plans that could become state law

OLYMPIA -- After a year of task force meetings, it’s time to find out if the governor’s ambitious plans to save the endangered southern resident orcas will turn into state law.

It’s in the hands of state lawmakers now as they introduced several bills in Olympia Wednesday.

The legislation is based on several of the governor's orca task force recommendations. Some will be a harder sell than others.

House Bill 1580 and Senate Bill 5577 deal with several aspects of vessel noise, which can disrupt the orca’s foraging.

The bills would require vessels double the distance they must stay away from the southern residents from 200 to 400 yards. It also imposes a go-slow zone of traveling under seven knots within a half nautical mile of the whales.

But it’s the proposal to ban whale watching on southern residents for the next few years that will likely provide the most controversy in this bill. Even the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said there’s a lot more they still need to hammer out.

"I felt like the recommendations of the orca task force were a little rushed," Blake said of the suspension on watching southern residents. "I was there that day and it seemed like there’s more discussion to be had on whether a full moratorium is necessary to protect the whales or some kind of modified moratorium."

House Bill 1578 and Senate Bill 5578 address improving oil transportation safety, a major concern because of the detrimental impact an oil spill could have on the endangered population.

It would mandate tugs for oil tankers of a certain size in the Salish Sea and also address the need to provide an emergency response towing vessel where traffic is high near the San Juan Islands.

"With the impact of climate change, the larger storms, the increase of vessels, it’s always good to be safe rather than facing one of the biggest disasters we could see within the Northwest and that is an oil spill in the Salish Sea," said Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, the bill's sponsor.

House Bill 1579 and Senate Bill 5580 would increase habitat for Chinook salmon and other forage fish. The most notable measure of these bills deal with shoreline armoring, or strengthening the sea walls. It can be especially damaging for forage fish if not done correctly.

The bills deal with enhancing oversight and increasing penalties associated with construction projects that don’t follow the rules. The task force would like to see those rules and needed permits extend to single-family homes.

Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge, who sponsored the legislation, said she’s confident the task force proposals are based on good science and went through a rigorous process.

"There will be changes that will be made throughout the legislative debate because there always are, but I think they gave us a really, really strong starting point," Rolfes said.

Hearings for these bills could start as early as next week.