A sign for the Wells Dam in 2007, near Pateros, Washington. The Wells Hatchery is adjacent to the dam and is owned by the Douglas County Public Utility District. Douglas County Public Utilities District Courtesy
A sign for the Wells Dam in 2007, near Pateros, Washington. The Wells Hatchery is adjacent to the dam and is owned by the Douglas County Public Utility District. Douglas County Public Utilities District Courtesy

Politics & Government

State loses contract to operate two fish hatcheries after report of sexual culture

By Walker Orenstein

worenstein@thenewstribune.com

August 29, 2017 05:16 PM

Editor’s note: This story was reported in collaboration with Austin Jenkins of public radio’s Northwest News Network.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has lost a multimillion-dollar contract to run a pair of fish hatcheries following a report of a sexual culture among top-ranking employees at one of the facilities.

Officials with the Douglas County Public Utility District, which owns the hatcheries, decided Monday to terminate its one-year contract with the state to operate the Wells and Methow hatcheries in north central Washington.

The contract was renewed in June and was set to pay out $1.36 million to the state for the Wells Hatchery and another $715,000 for the Methow Hatchery, said Meaghan Vibbert, a spokeswoman for the PUD.

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The four highest-ranking employees at Wells were fired by the state in early August after an investigation into sexual-harassment claims found a workplace atmosphere riddled with sexual conversations and hazing. The environment drove at least one woman to leave the office, according to the report.

Bruce Botka, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife, said Tuesday evening the agency was still analyzing the situation and wanted to talk to PUD officials about their decision.

“Obviously we would be disappointed to end that relationship with them,” Botka said. He added the agency understands why the PUD would be “concerned” about the findings of the workplace investigation, but he said Fish and Wildlife wants to make sure the decision is good for people and fish in the state.

It’s unclear how many employees may lose their state jobs because of the contract termination.

There are 17 state positions at the Wells Hatchery complex, according to Fish and Wildlife. That complex includes Methow and Wells, as well as other small, satellite locations not run by the PUD.

The state owns or operates 83 fish hatcheries in Washington, according to Fish and Wildlife.

State workers can apply for jobs at the PUD once the hatcheries transition to district leadership, but they are not guaranteed jobs, Vibbert said.

Jessica Randklev The News Tribune

The state has operated the Wells Hatchery since it was built in 1967 and operated the Methow Hatchery since it opened in 1991, Vibbert said.

Vibbert did not delve into specifics about what problems the PUD had with Fish and Wildlife but noted officials believed the state had “issues” and the district felt safer using its own employees when trying to meet federal regulations. The hatcheries, which raise salmon, steelhead and other fish, are part of the broader Wells Dam, which is licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“By having our own staff at our own facilities, that puts that in our hands,” she said.

The option to terminate the contract was put on the PUD’s agenda after The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network reported earlier this month on the investigation of state workers, Vibbert said.

The consulting firm Daphne R. Schneider and Associates completed the report in late June.

The contract termination also comes as the Wells Hatchery is in the final stages of an 18-month renovation paid for by the PUD. Vibbert said the agreement with the state will be ended after 90 days.

Time is needed to transition the hatcheries to new leadership.

“It is a major decision, and we’re taking it seriously, but we are confident for our future,” Vibbert said.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein