Photo by Marcy Stamper
Staffing at Winthrop’s hatchery may be taken over by the Douglas PUD.

Half-dozen jobs at Winthrop facility are up in the air

By Marcy Stamper

Staffing and management of the state Methow Hatchery in Winthrop and the larger Wells Hatchery near Pateros are up in the air since the Douglas County Public Utility District sent a letter to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) last week, terminating the PUD’s multi-million-dollar contract for management of the hatchery complex.

Officials at WDFW, which manages all operations at the PUD-owned hatcheries, had no warning about the decision until they received the one-page letter on Aug. 29, said Bruce Botka, a public information officer for WDFW. “Our staff is digging in and doing quite a bit of background analysis and historical research,” he said.

WDFW and PUD staff met Friday (Sept. 1) before the Labor Day weekend, said Jim Brown, regional director of the north central region for WDFW. Brown said the agencies are still exploring what’s actually involved in transitioning a massive project like this, given the permitting requirements and the many facets of running the hatchery program.

Officials from the two agencies set up another meeting for Wednesday morning (Sept. 6), said Botka.

“We’re not in a fight-or-flight position by any means — we need to be in negotiations,” said Botka, who said everything at this stage is “extremely preliminary” because WDFW hasn’t haven’t had time to analyze the implications.

The Wells complex includes the Methow Hatchery on Wolf Creek Road near Winthrop, the Wells Hatchery, and several acclimation ponds. The PUD built the facilities, but it has always been operated by WDFW and staffed by state workers.

Under the current one-year contract, which was signed on July 1, the PUD pays WDFW $715,000 to run the Methow Hatchery and $1.36 million for the Wells Hatchery, according to Meaghan Vibbert, a public information officer for the PUD. That covers all salaries and costs. The contract includes a provision for termination with 90-days’ notice.

“Over the next 90 days, we’re transitioning to PUD operations,” said Vibbert. The PUD intends to post the vacant positions and will hire its own staff, she said. Current state hatchery workers can apply for their jobs, she said.

Because the hatcheries are operated under a federal license, “it’s more complicated than an agreement between two parties,” said Botka.

“We’re figuring out where the business contract fits in with the requirements of the federal license for the PUD to produce fish,” said Brown. “That’s a separate, but clearly related, issue — the requirement in the license to produce fish.”

Moreover, because the situation involves two public entities, “we need to be transparent and to ensure that we have the confidence of the public that we have the best interests of the natural resources — and the public’s financial interests — at heart,” Brown said.

Concerns for staff

There are 18 employees in the Wells hatchery complex (some seasonal), according to Botka. Six are at the Methow Hatchery, eight at Wells, and the rest at smaller facilities and acclimation sites.

Workers at the hatcheries were stunned to learn about the PUD’s termination letter last Tuesday. “We’re just the guys that keep the fish alive and happy and fed,” said one.

Brown said the agency is concerned about the well-being, careers and families of its staff. Workers may have protections through union contracts that give those with seniority the right to “bump” less-senior employees. “I know how disruptive that can be to the employees and their families, and understand the stress that comes with that uncertainty,” he said.

Vibbert said an independent investigation that found an “extremely sexualized” culture at the Wells hatchery, which resulted in the firing of three employees and a manager at Wells last month, was part of the PUD’s consideration in ending the contract. “We desire to run our own hatcheries — that’s the reason the district chose to terminate the contract,” she said.

The investigation did not involve any employees at the Winthrop hatchery.

The four positions vacated at the Wells Hatchery after the August firings are still being filled on a temporary basis by other staff from the complex, said Botka.

In addition to discussions with the PUD, WDFW has to focus on running the hatchery over the next 80 days, since its primary responsibility is to the fish raised there and to returning salmon, said Brown.

WDFW manages 83 hatcheries around the state. It owns and manages 56 and manages 17 for other entities. The PUD doesn’t own or run any other hatcheries.

Federal license

WDFW staff and attorneys are looking at the license requirements set by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for Wells Dam, which is also operated by the Douglas County PUD, said Botka.

The hatcheries produce fish to mitigate the effect the dams have on populations of endangered salmon. The Methow Hatchery raises spring Chinook, which are listed as endangered by the federal government.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation are all parties to the hatchery license from FERC, so they all have a considerable policy and practical interest, said Botka.

Vibbert said the FERC license simply obligates the PUD to produce a certain number of fish and meet habitat conservation plans. “It’s a PUD facility — as long as we’re meeting our obligations, it doesn’t matter to FERC,” she said.