State could pull plug on Naches fish hatchery as way to scale back costs

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YAKIMA HERALD – LUKE THOMPSON – NACHES, Wash. — More than a dozen Zillah High School students watched intently as some 4,000 rainbow trout at the Naches Fish Hatchery were loaded into a truck headed for Dog Lake near White Pass earlier this week.

They were among the hundreds of students from up to 15 area schools that each year bring classes here for tours.

These educational opportunities would disappear under a new state Department of Fish and Wildlife proposal to close its hatcheries in Naches and Omak by the middle of next year. Officials said the hatcheries’ main function, stocking trout in area lakes and ponds, would be largely replaced by other facilities.

The cost of fish feed, utilities and two full-time employees at the bare-bones Naches facility add up to nearly $495,000 for this two-year budget cycle. The Wildlife Department’s deputy assistant director, Kelly Cunningham, said the proposal provides an estimated savings of nearly $256,000 in the two years following the closure.

“We’ve got a $30 million budget problem and the Legislature asked us to do what we could to achieve savings wherever we would have them,” Cunningham said. “This has been a problem with these state-funded hatcheries for quite a while.”

Major concerns

A similar proposal came up in 2015, when a public outcry and legislative resistance helped keep the hatchery open.

Cunningham said a bill to raise fishing and hunting license fees for the 2017-19 budget cycle failed to gain enough support, so the Legislature gave the Wildlife Department a $10 million proviso to help keep hatcheries and fisheries open. Dipping into the capital reserve fund saved them during the previous budget cycle, all of which continued to add to the overall deficit as costs kept rising.

“We’ve been communicating a financial problem for a number of years,” Cunningham said. “The Legislature has come up with some temporary fixes. We’re in a situation now where something’s got to give.”

Wildlife Department officials hope to continue stocking local ponds for events such as June 16’s C.A.S.T. for Kids derby at Sarg Hubbard Pond, which offers a fishing opportunity for children with disabilities. The event’s new coordinator, Chuck Gonsalez, said defunding community outreach programs would be “asking for a major disaster for the economy.”

A 2004 study commissioned by the Wildlife Department found based on a cost of $135 per fishing trip, the Naches Hatchery and Nelson Springs, its auxiliary branch near SunTides Golf Course, generated nearly $73 million of economic activity. That figure doesn’t include the production of 300,000 kokanee, 10,000 cutthroat and 10,000 Mount Whitney rainbow trout.

This week alone, Naches hatchery’s longtime manager Matt Mathes and his coworker, Kyle Huwe, will plant fish at about a half- dozen lakes in preparation for the state’s annual free fishing weekend.

Cunningham hopes most of that economic value of the Naches hatchery won’t be lost as fish stocking for more than 60 area lakes and ponds could still be done by westside hatcheries in Mossyrock and Eells Springs.

“We think we can make up about 85 percent of that trout production and possibly more,” Cunningham said. “Will anglers see a difference? They might.”

Among the legislators who opposed the closure in 2015 is state Rep. Norm Johnson, R-Yakima. He said he wasn’t familiar with the most recent proposal, but said it felt like a threat by the state agency to acquire more funds, a charge Cunningham emphatically denies.

“I think that means jobs in this area and I’m sure that money could be found to keep that facility open,” said Johnson, whose district includes Naches. “They would need to show me the figures of how much of a cut they took in their budget before I could agree.”

State Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, said he learned about the proposal in a recent briefing and is waiting for more information before taking a side regarding the closure. Although he’s concerned about the loss of jobs and if other cuts could be made instead, as assistant ranking member of the agriculture and natural resources committee he knows the budget hole will force some tough decisions.

No done deal.

Posted By: Luke Thompson, Yakima Herald, June 7, 2018

Picture: Shawn Gust – Yakima Herald, Naches Fish Hatchery