WDFW, Yakamas raise concerns about fish
By Marcy Stamper
The Douglas County Public Utility District (PUD) is recruiting for 10 jobs at the Methow and Wells hatcheries, part of a plan to replace state workers with its own employees following the PUD’s decision to manage the hatcheries.
The PUD is hiring a manager for each hatchery, plus two hatchery specialists at the Methow Hatchery in Winthrop and six at the Wells Hatchery near Pateros. “We will fill 10 jobs and get the bodies in place,” said Meaghan Vibbert, a PUD spokesperson.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), which manages the hatchery complex for the PUD, employs 18 people (some seasonal) to staff the hatcheries — six at the Methow Hatchery and eight at Wells, and the rest at smaller facilities and acclimation sites, according to Bruce Botka, a WDFW spokesperson.
The PUD doesn’t anticipate needing as many workers. “With the consistent nature of PUD employees, we won’t need as many,” said Vibbert, who said the fact that WDFW rotated people among different facilities meant there was a significant learning curve. Vibbert said the utility may ultimately hire a total of 12 or 14 people. Current state hatchery workers can apply for their jobs, she said.
Under PUD management, the hatchery positions will not be union jobs. As WDFW employees, the workers have been represented by unions.
State workers may have protections through union contracts that give those with seniority the right to “bump” less-senior employees, said Jim Brown, regional director of the north central region for WDFW. Union officials did not return calls seeking comment on the situation and job prospects for the current staff.
The PUD plans to have its own staff in place in early November, coinciding with the 90-day period it announced at the end of August for terminating the multi-million-dollar contract with the state. WDFW said it had no warning of the PUD’s decision before they received the letter.
Since the PUD notified WDFW of its decision to end the contract, WDFW and PUD officials have met more than once, and the directors of each agency have exchanged several letters.
In a letter to PUD General Manager Gary Ivory on Sept. 7, WDFW Director James Unsworth thanked Ivory for meeting with him and other WDFW staff to discuss the rationale for the PUD’s decision.
Unsworth also mentioned “allegations of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment at Wells Hatchery” that the WDFW had received early this year. WDFW immediately initiated an investigation, he said.
“In April, I requested the Douglas PUD be notified of the investigation, and although we were unable to share details of the investigation, I was told that the PUD had been notified,” wrote Unsworth. The investigation confirmed the existence of a hostile work environment and resulted in the termination of four employees at the Wells Hatchery, he said. (There were no allegations involving the Methow Hatchery.)
“We approached this issue as an internal personnel problem, and in retrospect WDFW failed to keep our partners at Douglas PUD informed of the progress of our investigation. WDFW was also aware of news coverage and we should have notified Douglas PUD of this potentially embarrassing issue,” wrote Unsworth.
In a response sent Sept. 14, Ivory wrote, “Historically the District has taken a patient and measured approach to dealing with deficiencies related to WDFW hatchery operations. We appreciate your efforts to correct the recent embarrassing problems that took place at the District’s hatchery, including the communication breakdown. The latest events have eroded trust in our partnership and we know that you are working hard to rebuild that trust.”
The PUD has asked WDFW to help with the transition. “The District needs WDFW’s help and we again ask that you immediately appoint an employee at WDFW who is responsible for the transition,” wrote Ivory.
Unsworth asked the PUD to reconsider its decision to terminate the contract, citing a long history of working together “to benefit the fishery resources of the upper Columbia Basin.” The PUD commission considered Unsworth’s request at its Sept. 11 meeting, but the commission “still firmly believes it is necessary for the District to operate its own hatcheries,” said Ivory.
“We had a one-year contract for operations and maintenance. We terminated that contract,” said Vibbert. “They’re our fish and our facilities.”
Concerns for fish
Several agencies and stakeholders have raised alarms about the impact of an abrupt change in management on the endangered salmon produced at the two hatcheries.
Gerald Lewis, chair of the Fish and Wildlife Committee for the Yakama Tribal Council, wrote to Ivory on Sept. 11 to register “grave concerns” about the proposal to replace WDFW staff with PUD staff within 90 days.
“As a self-regulating fishery co-manager with responsibilities to our tribal public for prudent stewardship of treaty trust fishery resources, we are alarmed that this significant program decision was made without notice to, or consultation with, the various committees described in Douglas’s [hatchery licenses],” wrote Lewis.
“Without commenting on the merits of the PUD’s action, we are concerned that the proposed 90-day transition from WDFW to PUD… unnecessarily risks the fish currently in the program as well as the new broods that will be spawned within the 90-day period,” he wrote.
Calling the 90-day deadline “arbitrary” and without biological significance or urgency, Lewis said the short time frame “risks a ragged transition in hatchery operations.”
Ivory hasn’t responded to Lewis yet, but has been trying to reach him by phone before formally replying, said Vibbert this week. But in his letter to WDFW’s Unsworth, Ivory underlined the PUD’s commitment to the well-being of the fish. “These fish are a District obligation and nothing is being spared to ensure these fish are healthy and protected,” he wrote.
Unsworth expressed his own concerns for the fish. “Our limited experience in transferring control of other hatchery facilities has shown that a 90-day transition period would not allow sufficient time to safeguard the health of the fish while addressing the myriad of permitting and potential operational changes,” he wrote.
WDFW is also concerned about other entities that are parties to the federal license under which the PUD operates Wells Dam. The hatcheries are required in the license as mitigation for the impact of the dam on endangered salmon, which migrate through the Columbia River dam on their way to and from the ocean.
Those other parties include the Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board, the Colville Tribes, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] Fisheries, said Unsworth. WDFW staff and attorneys have been looking at the federal license requirements, said Botka.
Unsworth proposed the state and the PUD use the remaining 10 months in the contract to discuss the PUD’s concerns and give WDFW an opportunity to correct any deficiencies. They would also use the time to discuss the management transfer, he wrote.
The PUD built the Methow Hatchery on Wolf Creek Road in 1992 and the Wells Hatchery in 1967, but the facilities have always been operated by WDFW. The PUD doesn’t own or run any other hatcheries.
The Methow Hatchery produces spring Chinook and the Wells Hatchery produces steelhead and summer Chinook. Spring Chinook are on the federal list as endangered and steelhead are threatened.
Vibbert said all permits connected with raising endangered salmon already name the PUD. The only one outstanding is a pollutant-discharge permit from the state Department of Ecology, she said. Last week the PUD sent forms for WDFW to sign to transfer the permit.
Botka said WDFW is reviewing its options and hasn’t commented publicly or replied to Ivory’s letter.