Salmon and trout would have many more places to spawn and grow if more than 1,000 state-owned road culverts didn’t stand in the way, biologists say.
A recent federal court ruling could step up efforts to restore fish habitat by removing or replacing problem culverts around Puget Sound and on the Olympic Peninsula.
But it’s unclear how many millions of dollars that might cost, how quickly it could be accomplished and where state officials will find the money.
“To me, it’s a very simple fix to fix the culverts and their huge impact on salmon recovery,” said Billy Frank Jr., the Nisqually leader whose tribe is among 20 that sued in 2001 to force the state into action.
Harking back to the historic 1974 Boldt decision, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez sided with the tribes in August. Since the blocked culverts reduce fish habitat, he said, they violate tribal treaty rights to fish.
Martinez stopped short of demanding an immediate fix. Instead, he encouraged state and tribal officials to work out a solution. Official talks begin Monday in Seattle.
The goal is to have a proposal ready by December, in time for the 2008 legislative session that begins in January, said Steve Dietrich, senior counsel for the office of the state attorney general.
“He wants us to check in by Nov. 1 and every 60 days after that,” Dietrich said of the judge. “I think there’ll be a series of meetings. This is pretty complicated.”
Simple, according to Frank. Complicated, to Dietrich.
Here’s the essence of the issue: Just because a buried pipe carries a stream from one side of a road to the other, it doesn’t guarantee that fish can pass through. Or that gravel and sand don’t build up on the upstream side and threaten to clog up the passage. Or that a plugged pipe won’t fail, causing a flood or road collapse, which also damages the stream bed and kills fish.
Biologists for both the state and the tribes generally agree that all of those things are problems.
That said, there’s little consensus on the scope of the problem, including how many miles of usable habitat are blocked.
Lawyers for the tribes contend that culvert problems in the area covered by the lawsuit – around Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula – render about 750 miles of salmon streams useless.
On the state side, it’s hard to get a single number because multiple agencies are involved.
Beyond that, from the tribes’ perspective, the dispute revolves around deadlines, priorities and appropriate culvert design. On the state side, agency representatives cite cost as the primary reason why so many culverts haven’t been fixed.
CONCERNS ABOUT COST
On and off for years, tribal and state officials have tried to resolve the dispute. A last round of court-sanctioned mediation ended unsuccessfully last May before Martinez weighed in.
For the upcoming settlement talks, Gov. Chris Gregoire’s office is coordinating the state’s response.
That doesn’t sit well with at least state lawmaker, Rep. Joel Kretz, a Republican from Wauconda, Okanogan County. Kretz is a rancher and forest landowner who became politically active representing his county’s Farm Bureau in a dispute over state forest road maintenance and abandonment rules.
He’s had firsthand experience with culvert requirements. What worries Kretz most is the cost.
“There have been billions of dollars spent on salmon recovery efforts and now the governor may negotiate more money away in private without consideration for the taxpayers of this state,” he said.
The culvert case involves the state agencies that oversee transportation, forests, fisheries and parks.
“We’re the lion’s share,” said Paula Hammond, the Transportation Department’s interim secretary. “We do care about fish and it’s been something we’ve tried to work on,” she said.
Since 1991, the Transportation Department has spent $40 million to fix the problem. So far, 200 culverts have been corrected statewide. Over the next 12 years, the department plans to spend an additional $69 million, she said.
As for the Puget Sound area, she estimated the Transportation Department’s culvert repair or replacement obligation at a minimum of $300 million. Transportation officials have identified about 850 problem culverts in watersheds around Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula.
“They’re on pace to complete the job sometime in the next century,” said lawyer John Sledd, who represents Nisqually and several other tribes in the lawsuit. “That’s certainly not adequate.”
But Paul Wagner, who manages the department’s biology branch, said the state’s timetable is based on a priority list. “We know we can get most of the habitat from less than half of the culverts. If we fixed the top 40 percent of the priority list we would get 80 percent of available habitat,” he said.
While Transportation Department officials deal with highway culverts, the Natural Resources Department handles forest roads.
Natural Resources, the parks department and the Department of Fish and Wildlife are subject to a previously negotiated 2016 deadline for culvert correction.
Natural Resources Department officials put the total number of problem culverts in the lawsuit area at about 700.
“We are fixing them all over the place all the time as we are doing work in various locations,” said Patty Henson, department spokeswoman.
BAD PIPE DESIGN, PLACEMENT
Sometimes culverts that are bad for fish also are bad for people.
That’s true of one just outside of Roy, where three 4-foot-tall arched culverts are supposed to carry Lacamas Creek under Highway 507. Lacamas Creek runs into Muck Creek, a Nisqually River tributary and home to a native run of chum salmon.
When Lacamas Creek runs high, the culvert stands in the way and the creek floods parts of town. And even before the creek jumps its banks, the fish can’t get through, state biologists said. Debris now blocks two of the three barrels. It’s a troublesome design.
“You never want to have rows of pipe” next to each other, said Dan Wrye, Pierce County watershed services manager. “The fish can be impaled. They hit the sharp edges and it can be lethal.”
A 2005 county watershed plan calls for culvert replacement and estimates the cost at $345,000. The state Department of Transportation could pick up at least part of the tab, but so far it’s not budgeted, officials said.
Closer to the Sound, on the east fork of Hylebos Creek and near Federal Way’s Wild Waves Theme Park, a pipe spills water out of an embankment beneath Enchanted Parkway South.
The water drops into a scour hole where young coho swim, but they can’t get through the conduit because it’s perched too high above the creek, a tribal biologist said.
If not for that poorly placed pipe, fish could move upstream an additional 6,000 feet or so, said Russ Ladley, the Puyallup Tribe’s resource protection manager.
From his perspective, that’s significant.
Such blockages “contribute to a sizable loss of fish production,” he said. “It’s the death-from-1,000-wounds type of argument.”
Susan Gordon: 253-597-8756