Comment: Ineffective waste of land, stream buffers are back

Gov. Inlsee has dug up a bad idea to protect salmon habitat. The real threat is urban development.

By Max Albert / For The Herald

Two decades ago, a clique of tribal and environmental interest groups sought to impose 200-foot to 300-foot forested buffers on both banks of every rural river and stream, effectively confiscating thousands of acres of prime farmland.

Marching under the banner of science, they claimed this would protect the rivers from agricultural impacts, create a riparian micro-climate to keep the water cool, and provide large woody debris in the river for pools and other “channel diversity.” Their fanciful notion was that lowland corridors of pre-Columbian ecology would somehow restore pre-Columbian salmon runs.

Unfortunately for the proponents, they could never conclusively demonstrate that the farms were actually suppressing the fish runs, much less that the proposed buffers would achieve their return. Opposition to “big dumb buffers” arose, skeptical state legislators feared the economic damage, and the assault on farms went into remission.

It has relapsed. Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed legislation to resurrect the buffer land grab, after talks with the tribes, particularly the Swinomish Tribe in Skagit County. Farm groups, despite being bona fide stakeholders, were not invited. Nevertheless, Inslee proclaims that this speculative effort to save salmon, pitting the tribes and farmers against each other, will “unite us.”

Since the previous assault, farmers have complied with a host of Critical Areas regulations, monitored farm plans and best management practices, to protect water quality and wildlife. They have voluntarily installed limited buffers, hedgerows and run-off controls. In short, there is even less of a case for agriculture harming our streams than there was 20 years ago.

During the same time, certain tribes and agencies have spent hundreds of millions in taxpayer grants to simply buy up large tracts of farmland, at prices farmers can’t match. They planted wide buffers, removed bank-stabilization rip-rap, and flooded estuarine ag lands with saltwater. But all their good intentions and huge expenditures have bought no evident increase in the runs; the needle hasn’t budged. Now, in the classic definition of insanity, Inslee yearns to spend $187 million on more of the same.

Lurking beneath it all is a dirty little secret: The vast bulk of damage to our watersheds comes not from farming, but from urban development. Untreated storm drain run-off poisons streams, while hundreds of acres of impervious surfaces (roofs and pavements), destroy their hydrology, causing erosive surges in the rainy months and drying them up in summer due to loss of natural infiltration. Urban streams become irretrievably uninhabitable, and it all flows downhill into the rivers.

Fish biologists are quietly aware of this reality, but even the Swinomish legion of casino-funded lawyers, widely regarded with fear and loathing, can’t stop the spread of urban development, the tax-base sacred cow. Ahead of the upland bulldozers, the farmers too have retreated to the floodplains, and now our governor demands they give up even that land for a half-baked scheme to remedy a problem originating elsewhere.

Our farmers work hard and resourcefully to provide locally-grown products, including dairy, seed crops, hay for horse lovers, potatoes, wheat, eggs, flowers, fresh vegetables and grass-fed beef. Their plant nurseries, berry farms and pumpkin patches invite rural outings for city families, and contribute to Washington’s quality of life. The floodplains are the last refuge.

The legislature convenes on Jan 10. According to the Capitol Press, a 2020 Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife report concludes that “policymakers should not assume wider buffers are the best policy.” Legislators need to hear that the reputed science is questionable, and that fish counts are not the only thing that matters to the people of Washington.

Max Albert is a retired engineer who has served on both the Snohomish County Agricultural Advisory Board and the Stillaguamish Clean Water District Advisory Board. He played a leading role in an extensive habitat restoration project for the Stillaguamish Flood Control District. His family has been farming in Snohomish County for four generations.

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