OLYMPIA - In a new effort to protect fish threatened by drought, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is taking steps to limit activities including suction dredging and certain construction projects in sun-baked rivers around the state.
Effective immediately, emergency regulations filed by WDFW today prohibit or restrict suction dredging for gold and mechanical removal of aquatic plants in more than 60 rivers and streams until further notice.
The department also plans to modify the terms of some individual state permits - known as hydraulic project approvals (HPAs) - previously granted for projects such as culvert replacement and gravel removal in those waters.
Over the past month, state fish managers have closed or restricted fishing on those same rivers and streams due to drought conditions that have killed thousands of salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and other fish.
"The department is taking unprecedented action in response to an unprecedented threat to fish life in our state," said Randi Thurston, manager of WDFW's habitat protection division. "Current low flows and soaring water temperatures are a deadly combination for fish and we need to do everything we can to avoid adding to their distress."
Under the emergency regulations, gold dredging and mechanical removal of aquatic plants are now prohibited on more than 35 rivers and closed during the warmest hours of the day on at least 30 others.
On rivers with hourly restrictions, gold dredging will be limited to the hours between a half-hour before official sunrise until 2 p.m. For mechanical plant removal, those rivers are open from midnight until 2 p.m.
A list of rivers and streams affected by HPA emergency rules is available on WDFW's website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/drought/ . None of those rules affect panning for gold or pulling aquatic weeds by hand.
State biologists, however, will start contacting several hundred permit holders around the state over the next week to discuss modifying the timing of individual HPA projects to avoid putting further stress on fish already weakened by drought conditions.
Thurston said WDFW will allow construction projects to proceed on schedule if permit holders can show that delays will pose a threat to life, property, project funding, or environmental conditions.
She noted, however, that the state's Hydraulic Code allows WDFW to modify the conditions of HPA permits, based on changing conditions. That law, created by the state Legislature in 1943, was specifically designed to protect the state's fish life.