Two groups representing Skagit area tribes and a group of 11 environmental organizations have voiced concern over proposed changes to the state Hydraulic Code, which regulates construction work in and around water to protect fish and their habitat.

The organizations raised questions about the update’s focus on improving the permitting process for applicants, rather than emphasizing habitat protection.

Tribal groups assert that the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is the regulatory agency that evaluates in-water project proposals for compliance with state law to protect fish habitat under the code’s hydraulic permit application review process, could fail to meet treaty rights under the proposed update.

The Skagit River System Cooperative says that while some sections of the update strengthen fish protection, a few weaken it and need to be revised.

The cooperative assists the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe and Swinomish Indian Tribal Community with natural resource management.

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission also offered comment, saying Fish and Wildlife is federally required to protect fish and help recover declining populations, but the update suggests streamlining the permitting process to benefit applicants is “seeking to take actions known to be damaging to fish habitat.”

The commission is a support service organization assisting 20 treaty tribes in Western Washington in their role as natural resources co-managers, including the Upper Skagit Tribe. It asks that the update be refined to support salmon recovery while still allowing reasonable projects to be completed.

Tribes are co-managers of the fisheries, so their input is common in the hydraulic code process, said Bob Zeigler, Fish and Wildlife SEPA and Hydraulic Permit Application appeals coordinator.

Fish and Wildlife accepted comment on a draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for the rule change proposal under the State Environmental Policy Act through Dec. 13. Including joint comment letters, as many as 80 comments were received, Zeigler said.

The Seattle-based environmental group Sound Action signed one joint letter, along with 10 other groups from around the state.

The letter says language in the proposed update creates exemptions and loopholes and diminishes department responsibility.

Since July, Sound Action has appealed 28 hydraulic permits Fish and Wildlife issued, including projects at the Anacortes Marina and Guemes Island ferry dock.

In those two cases, the organization said the agency failed to consider spawning of protected fish including surf smelt and herring and asked for permit modifications to include time restrictions for the work.

“When we’re looking at Puget Sound, which is in such imperiled decline, the very crux of why we are not making recovery is we have this continued habitat destruction being allowed with each and every permit,” Sound Action Executive Director Amy Carey said this month.

“She wants our agency to take a stronger stand protecting forage fish; herring, smelt,” Zeigler said.

The permit for the marina was modified to restrict work during herring spawning January through April. The ferry dock appeal is still in process.

“We have to protect the rights of our applicants, but we are not at war with Sound Action,” Zeigler said. “They want to protect fish resources, we want to protect fish resources. It’s how to do it that is the debate.”

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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