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Trump wants to cut EPA funding for Puget Sound by 93 percent

The Trump administration has proposed cutting federal funding for restoring Puget Sound by 93 percent.

For the fiscal year ending this June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has spent $28 million on Puget Sound restoration and monitoring. It has channeled those funds through tribes, nonprofits and local governments, which carry out the on-the-ground work.

Next year, that would drop to $2 million under the White House proposal revealed this week.

Many other EPA programs would be reduced or eliminated. Overall, the agency's funding would drop from to $6.16 billion next year from $8.24 billion this fiscal year. (That's down from a 2010 high of $10.3 billion).

One-fifth of the agency's 15,000 jobs would be eliminated within a year.

Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, read portions of the leaked, 23-page Office of Management and Budget document to KUOW. Becker said he obtained it from an unnamed administration official under the condition that he not distribute it.

Washington state Sen. Doug Ericksen, the EPA spokesperson, did not respond to KUOW's requests for information on the proposed cuts.

Programs to clean up major water bodies were hard hit: The Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay would also lose more than 90 percent of their EPA funding; cleanup funds for San Francisco Bay and Long Island Sound would be eliminated.

EPA's environmental justice and climate protection programs would be cut by more than two-thirds.

Cuts like that worry researchers — and those who depend on salmon from Northwest waters.

On a small workboat on south Puget Sound, three men in waterproof gear chugged along the Nisqually Reach and slowly lowered a pair of 8-foot-long nets over the stern and into the cold green water.

The researchers with the Nisqually tribe were looking for the microscopic creatures that young salmon eat.

This time of year, young chinook salmon are just heading out from their rivers into the sound. If they can find enough food and avoid predators, some will grow up to be the biggest of salmon — king salmon, as they're sometimes called — 3 feet long or more. For now, they're about the size of your pinky. And the researchers want to see if something's going haywire with the tiny fishes' even-tinier food.

"The primary animals that we do capture are small crustaceans that drift along in the current as part of the plankton community," Nisqually Tribe biologist Chris Ellings said.

Some are familiar creatures, little shrimp and crab larvae, and some are fantastical, like calenoid copepods. ("They're little crustaceans that look like they have big handlebar mustaches," Ellings said.) All things young chinook salmon like to eat.

That's where the Nisqually Tribe comes in. The tribe's hatchery pumps out millions of young chinook salmon each year, in hopes that they'll return, fully grown, in a tribal net.

Fishermen from the Puyallup and Nisqually tribes went to jail in the 1960s to defend their rights to fish where century-old treaties with the U.S. government said they could.

More recently, tribes have turned to science to help make sure the salmon their cultures and diets have long relied on keep coming back.

"The last few years have been really bad," said Emiliano Perez, a researcher and Nisqually tribal member, during a break from the plankton sampling.

"We weren't able to fish coho or chum this year," he said. "The tribe as a whole, we haven't been on the river since the first week of September."

Perez said salmon used to run up the Nisqually River all year long.

"Historically, that was our main staple, salmon. And so being off the river for nine months out of the year is pretty tough for all our tribal fishermen."

The Nisqually Tribe has put a lot of effort into making sure the Nisqually River is healthy for both wild salmon and its hatchery fish. Currently, 80 percent of the river runs through parks and other protected areas.

But for some reason, once the young salmon head out to Puget Sound, an unusual number of them are dying.

"Basically, salmon in Puget Sound have a lower survival rate than salmon out on the coast or in the lower Columbia," Ellings said.

"We can do all the work out in the river we want," Perez said, "but if the rest of Puget Sound don't take care of the Salish Sea and the ocean, then we're in some serious trouble."

Is it pollution? Predators? A lack of food? Climate? In cold years, the plankton in Puget Sound is more nutritious for salmon than in warm years. What these three researchers pull up in their nets could be one small step toward an answer.

The tribe's research is part of an international effort to understand why young salmon are dying in Puget Sound, Georgia Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The aim, ultimately, is to help salmon throughout the region recover from the brink of extinction.

More than 60 organizations in the U.S. and Canada are taking part in the massive research project. Tribes put some of their casino profits toward it — the Nisqually tribe is providing nearly $800,000 a year, according to Ellings.

But much of it is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Nisqually tribe receives EPA grants that it passes on to other organizations that don't have casinos raking in money.

"Those types of cuts could just take the salmon recovery machine that's taken decades to build, and they could grind it to a halt," Ellings said. "And that's not going to benefit anyone."

He said a failure to pursue answers and solutions would put tribal treaty rights and various governments' obligations under the U.S. Endangered Species Act at risk. Chinook salmon are listed as a threatened species.

Budget decisions are ultimately up to Congress. As an early step in the budget process, the White House has proposed a 25 percent cut in EPA's total spending nationwide.

"A 25 percent cut for any operation, for any entity, whether it's government or private, is a huge number to try to deal with," said John Iani, the Northwest head of the EPA under President George W. Bush.

Iani is now a lawyer with Perkins Coie in Seattle. He represents mostly mining and other resource-extraction companies facing environmental regulations. "I do understand that there are some burdensome regulations," Iani said.

But he said he, too, worries that budget cuts and arbitrary executive orders — such as the February order that all new federal regulations must be matched by the removal of two existing regulations — could grind the EPA to a halt.

"You can't just stop environmental regulation," Iani said. "That won't work."

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has emphasized the federal government stepping back from environmental protection and letting individual states play a bigger role.

"They can't do that if they don't have the funding," Iani said.

"Hundreds of millions dollars every year go from EPA to the states for water quality infrastructure," Dennis McLerran, the regional head of the EPA in the Obama administration, said. "If that is cut back, you will see efforts to protect public health cut back."

Many scientists and nature-lovers have taken to protesting the Trump administration's personnel and proposals. But on his way back from hauling up invisible and nearly invisible creatures from the depths of Puget Sound, Emiliano Perez said he's not too concerned about who sits in the White House.

"I think we're always in a struggle, in a fight, to keep what we hold and what we love, our traditions, our culture, alive. So I don't think it really matters too much who's president," he said.

"As a tribe, we just we want to be able to catch fish and keep our river healthy."

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