Water diverters in Washington State may know that fish screening is required by law, but they may not understand the relevant regulations and may struggle to afford compliant fish screens. The mission of the fish screening section of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is to solve these problems. Through its cooperative compliance approach, it aims to establish relationships of trust with water users, help explain screening requirements, and help users afford appropriate devices.

In this interview, WDFW Biologist Danny Didricksen tells Irrigation Leader about how the screening section works to build, install, and care for screens for the benefit of both fish and water users.

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Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.

Danny Didricksen: I majored in biology at Central Washington University (CWU) in Ellensburg, Washington, graduating in 2002. I did some textile work for a few years and then returned to CWU for a master’s degree in resource management. The first job I got after that was as a fisheries biologist with the WDFW in Ellensburg. We were doing genetic stock analysis and species-composition sampling with nets and boat electrofishing on some of the larger reservoir systems, Banks Lake and Lake Roosevelt. I did that for 5 years before moving into my current position as fish screening section manager in WDFW’s habitat program in 2013. I was interested in the job because, as much as I love research—and I really do understand the importance of science guiding management—it’s hard to work on something really hard for a few years, write a big report, and then see it sit on a shelf. In this position, by contrast, I implement fish screens in the field, get to work with people, and see immediate results in fish protection.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the WDFW.

Danny Didricksen: The WDFW is the state agency tasked with preserving, protecting, and perpetuating fish, wildlife, and ecosystems, while providing sustainable fishing, hunting, and other recreation opportunities. The WDFW’s headquarters are in Olympia, Washington, and about 1,800 staff work across six regions divided by natural geographic lines. The department has seven programs—habitat, fish, wildlife, enforcement, capital asset management, technology and finance, and the director’s office—with a program lead in each region. My work covers all six regions.

The habitat program, where I work, has a big emphasis on the culvert case injunction, which targets tributary systems in need of culvert replacements in the Puget Sound area. I am part of the fish passage and screening division, so my counterparts in Olympia are working on the Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board that was founded as a result of the culvert case injunction. It’s a multistakeholder board designed to get as many culverts corrected as possible. There is an end date required by the injunction that may or may not be realistic for the Washington State Department of Transportation, which owns most of the culverts, but we’re trying to get salmon through so that we can honor tribal rights to fish returns and improve the stock status of salmon as a whole. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about your program’s fish screening section?

Danny Didricksen: Fish screening in Washington has been going on since before we achieved statehood in 1889; the first hatcheries came into existence when this region was still part of the Oregon territory. In 1905, the first versions of fish breeding rules came on the books. They were designed to protect the state’s investments, because when hatcheries raised and released fish, they were often being immediately entrained in irrigation diversions just downstream. The state started requiring rudimentary fish screens to keep them from going into the canals.

Technological advances in fish exclusion devices continued for the first part of the 1900s. There were experiments with electrical and physical screen barriers, many of which didn’t work very well. In 1928, a technology called the drum screen was invented by a man named Charlie Cobb, who had come from Wyoming to work on a ranch in the Yakima Valley. The drum screen is a rotating cylinder with wire mesh. There’s a paddlewheel located behind it in the driveline, and as the water flows, the paddlewheel turns the driveline and makes the screen slowly rotate, keeping fish and debris out and passing them over the top. They became very popular, and the state implemented the design on the Olympic Peninsula, the Methow, the Wenatchee, and finally the Yakima Basin. 

In 1946, the Washington Department of Game’s fish screen shop was formally founded here in Yakima, and it’s been operating ever since. In 1949, the current versions of our fish screening rules, the Revised Code of Washington (RCW), went on the books. Lots of different technologies have been tried since then as well. We have a wide variety of screen types now, including pump screens; gravity screens; rotating drum screens; horizontal screens; and belt screens, which are like conveyor belts. Our screen shop primarily builds drum screens, and the department as a whole only builds gravity screens. We do not build end-of-pipe screens, or pump screens, as they’re more commonly known, because there are so many quality products available commercially. We also provide technical assistance to other people building screens, including folks from South Korea and New Zealand. 

WDFW is one of the founding members of the Fish Screening Oversight Committee, which includes the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Montana Department of Fish and Game, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and several other tribal members and private parties. It’s a great committee because it breeds a consistent understanding of the relatively complicated federal fish screening criteria and assures that the best technology being invented in the western United States is being used across the area where salmonids are running. It’s a great forum for information exchange. We do quarterly meetings over the phone, and every 2 years we do workshops in person. WDFW’s Yakima screen shop has full-time fabricators, welders, and supervisors on the craftsman side as well as biologists. We respond to requests from across the state. I supervise three biologists right now, strategically located in different regions so that we can provide the best statewide coverage possible.

Irrigation Leader: Do you sell your screens directly to consumers?

Danny Didricksen: The way that we get them to consumers varies, from word of mouth to grant opportunities. As a state agency, we are not allowed to make a profit, so we do not advertise our screens or sell them commercially. We do charge money for some services, like screen construction, but that money is put back into the program. Some users, including irrigation districts, conservation districts, and municipalities, contact us directly. They may let us know that they have old fish screens that need to be replaced because they are out of compliance or because of wear or that they simply need new screens. We can help them build those. We are also always available for free technical assistance. 

We also pursue grant money. We were just awarded over a million dollars from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). A big part of that contract is to build new fish screens for our inventory so that they are available when folks need them. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your service contracts with your districts.

Danny Didricksen: We established service contracts because consistent care can lengthen the lifespan of screens. They allow us to build a relationship of trust with our water users and give us the opportunity to ask questions, too. I think we’ve got about 80 of them right now. Our service contracts are primarily available in eastern Washington, although we do have one maintenance mechanic located in Port Angeles, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula, because the Dungeness River system has quite a few fish screens as well. Our service contracts are designed to make it easy and cost-effective for water users to engage the WDFW to make sure their screens are operating compliantly and well from a mechanical standpoint. The contracts involve weekly maintenance visits throughout the irrigation season. 

We do everything we can to reduce costs for individual water users. This includes efficiently planning maintenance trips to assure that the mechanic’s travel route passes by as many screen sites as possible so that travel costs can be shared. There are also instances when money from the department’s state-funded operations and maintenance accounts can help with costs. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about your cooperative compliance approach?

Danny Didricksen: Cooperative compliance has always been the mindset of the folks in our screen shop. They know that we’re here to protect fish and to get irrigators water. Irrigators’ crops are a major part of the backbone of Washington State’s economy; we are not looking to do anything that’s going to make it harder for them to use their water. For a fish screen project to be successful, it’s got to be sustainable and it’s got to be something that water users understand and consider advantageous. Otherwise, they won’t use it. Either way, they’ve got water rights and they’re going to get their water. 

Cooperative compliance was an officially funded program in the Walla Walla basin in the mid-1990s. There were many diversions there for grape and wheat cultivation, including profitable agriculture on big tracts of land, and many were not screened for fish. Fish screening had not really been advertised and many farmers just didn’t know that they were supposed to do it. We found that if you walked up and told somebody, “Hey, you’ve got to pay for this $300,000 fish screen. Do it now or be punished,” it didn’t really work. Instead, we tried to get everybody to understand what the problem was and why these requirements existed. Then we went about trying to fix it. Once the cooperative compliance program got funded, it drew in a lot of different stakeholders. Our cooperative compliance committee meetings included enforcement officers and biologists from WDFW, conservation district managers, ranchers and farmers, tribal members, and members of other natural resource agencies. Together, they generated a prioritized list of water diversions that were important from the fish perspective. Then outreach was conducted to the individual landowners. We explained why fish screening was necessary and provided funding to help offset the cost of screens. The committee paid about 80 percent of the cost for the fish screens, and the individual water users were billed for the other 20 percent. It was a successful program, initially funded for 2 years and then extended to 4 years. 

While it no longer exists as a legislature-funded program, the cooperative compliance moniker has stuck, and that approach has continued to be the way that we talk to our water users. Water is valuable out here, and people are often resistant at first to use a fish screen with small openings that might seem like it’s going to limit the amount of water they can take. In fact, that is not the case. NOAA put a lot of time into making sure that its fish screen rules did not limit existing water rights. Through this educational outreach process, we’ve brought water users on board and made sure that we’re not just telling them what to do but working with them to help them decide what to do. Water users provide valuable information about how local streams act. They know from personal experience that local streams peak in May or dry up in August. Those can be important things to know when we’re selecting the appropriate screen. 

This is not to say that we won’t enforce our RCW responsibilities, nor do we see a sustainable solution in simply dropping the hammer. As long as people are willing to work with us, we’re willing to work with them. I’ve been trying to broaden the scope of who we’re talking to and to find places in the state and audiences that we haven’t yet reached. We want to help everybody understand these rules and to comply as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. We want to engage in a partnership, not just force people into compliance. 

Irrigation Leader: How does the department build relationships with irrigators and water users and what challenges do you have to overcome to do that?

Danny Didricksen: Because our shop has been in existence since 1946 and screens have been in use even before that, we’ve had a long time to visit agricultural communities. Our operations and maintenance mechanics in the field are our first line of public contact. They put a big emphasis on treating people with respect, notifying people when they’re going to be there, and coming to agreements so that water users feel like they can call at any point in time. That in-person outreach is important. 

Educational outreach is another element. In general, we aim our outreach at groups and forums like agricultural conventions or the lead entity group meetings for the Salmon Recovery Funding Board groups across the state. I may go to those meetings to promote fish screening as a restoration action and talk with conservation districts, which are valuable intermediate partners between a regulatory agency like mine and users. Individual water right holders are often hesitant to reach out to a regulatory agency because they worry we’ll fine them, so it is good to work with groups like the conservation districts that have friendly relations with irrigators.

Irrigation Leader: What is your message to irrigators and water users about when they should reach out to you?

Danny Didricksen: We’re here to help. We want to protect the fish in our state because they are an important resource, including for fishing. One way we can do that is by keeping juvenile fish in the streams and rivers and not in irrigation fields. Almost everybody has come around to the idea that screening for fish is a good thing. Washington’s water users are smart people. They see climate change, they see water scarcity problems, they know that water is important for fish, and they know that the fish need to be protected. When people agree to screen for fish for the first time, we try to congratulate them and express our appreciation for their recognition of the importance of this effort. My message for all agricultural or domestic water users in our state is that working with the WFDW is not a scary thing. If you’re willing to work with us, we’re willing to work with you, and we look forward to doing so. 

Danny Didricksen is a fish and wildlife biologist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He can be contacted at daniel.didricksen@dfw.wa.gov.