State officials were ordered more than two years ago to replace old culverts that block fish migration in the Puget Sound region.
While the state is appealing that decision, officials also are making preparations to comply. And they’re realizing all their work could be for naught if they don’t fix other fish barriers, too — even ones that aren’t covered by the 2013 court injunction.
Culverts are typically large pipes that allow water to pass under roadways. But they often block salmon and steelhead from reaching spawning grounds.
That’s where state officials run into a problem: They don’t know where all the fish-blocking culverts in the state are, particularly the ones owned by city and county governments.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife is seeking to remedy that problem by conducting a thorough inventory of fish barriers in the state. The department is requesting about $300,000 from the Legislature next year to complete the fish barrier inventory and coordination project.
The goal is to ensure that the state’s work opening up salmon habitat isn’t thwarted by locally or privately owned culverts that might lurk a little way upstream or downstream, said Brian Abbott, the executive coordinator of the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office.
“There are gaps there in what we know as to where these barriers are, and that’s part of the challenge,” Abbott said. “We may know where one is, but what’s upstream and what’s downstream? That’s the check.”
“You don’t want to be repairing a barrier upstream if you know there are three more downstream that could block salmon migration,” he said.
A Fish and Wildlife official estimated that while the state has already inventoried about 14,000 fish barriers in Washington, at least twice that many probably exist. The 2013 court injunction affects only a portion of those — roughly 1,000.
The order to fix state-owned culverts stems from a lawsuit brought by 21 tribes that said the poorly planned culverts impede salmon runs and therefore infringe on treaty-protected tribal fishing rights.
U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez sided with the tribes in 2007, and in 2013 he issued an injunction requiring the state to replace hundreds of culverts in Western Washington by 2030. The state is appealing the court order.
While the 2013 injunction doesn’t apply to fish barriers that are owned by city and county governments, local officials don’t want to end up embroiled in litigation over culverts, either, said Dave Catterson, government relations analyst for the Association of Washington Cities.
Yet culvert replacement projects can be expensive because they often involve building a new bridge or overpass that lets a stream flow freely underneath, Catterson said.
For instance, a 2013 project to replace an outdated culvert along a state highway near Goldendale cost $3.5 million. The Washington State Department of Transportation estimates that it could cost about $2.4 billion to replace more than 800 culverts that fall under the 2013 injunction.
“I think it’s safe to say that cities want to try to be proactive on this culvert issue,” Catterson said. “But we also recognize that it’s going to be very expensive to try to fix all these barriers. So finding a way to do it in a coordinated, cost-effective way is going to be important.”
Catterson said a statewide inventory of fish barriers would help ensure that government officials are directing their limited funds toward projects that will help salmon the most.
“That is our overall goal: to make sure when we’re spending a lot of money that it really benefits the fish,” Catterson said.
According to Fish and Wildlife’s budget request, the fish barrier inventory would help state officials develop a prioritized list of culvert replacement projects to bring to the Legislature in 2017.
The state will prioritize projects that open up the most spawning ground for salmon, said Julie Henning, a fish biologist at the Department of Fish and Wildlife who chairs the state’s Fish Passage Barrier Removal Board.
That process will take into account “what other projects and investments are currently being made in those stream systems,” Henning said.
“The question is, what are the most important streams that if fish barriers were removed could really raise the bar and contribute to salmon recovery?” Henning said. “That’s really the premise.”