The long-, long-, long-awaited court ruling in the so-called culvert case has finally been issued. The bottom line is that the Washington Department of Transportation has been given 17 years to upgrade all state culverts to accepted standards to allow fish passage.
That’s basically what 21 Western Washington tribes asked for when they proposed a court order three years ago. Actually, the tribes asked for 20 years, but Judge Ricardo Martinez subtracted the three years that they waited for a final decision in the case, first filed in 2001. See my latest story in Saturday’s Kitsap Sun, or review the history in an article published in January.
How much effect this case will have on the state budget is hard to say. The state will likely appeal, because there’s so much at stake — including the tribes’ authority to affect how the state spends its money. As I see it, under Martinez’ ruling, treaty obligations are not much different than the constitutional obligations the state has to provide “basic education.” And we all have seen how the governor and Legislature are looking under rocks to find money for that purpose.
One estimate of the cost of fixing all the culverts is $1.9 billion, but that’s assuming the state has a complete inventory. It could be more. Martinez wants to see a complete inventory within six months. People concerned about salmon will probably make sure their least-favorite state culverts are on the list.
The latest “Fish Passage Barrier Inventory” (PDF 5 mb), completed last July, identifies about 1,500 culverts that block significant upstream habitat. That inventory and other information can be found on WDOT’s website “Fish Passage.”
If you’d like to read Martinez’ ruling — which includes information on the treaties, salmon habitat needs and culvert history — download the decision (PDF 111 kb) here and the injunction (PDF 45 kb) here.
Through all these years, WDOT has not been ignoring the problem. As I have reported, the state has been upgrading culverts while doing major road repairs and also increasing the budget for stand-alone culvert replacement.
But at the current pace, it could take between 50 and 75 years to get all the work done, maybe more. These are just guesses provided to me, based on the average cost of repairs, but every culvert is different.
Near the upper end of the scale, replacement of a culvert that carries Chico Creek under Highway 3 is estimated to cost between $20 million and $30 million alone. The project will require several bridges for the four-lane freeway north of Bremerton plus on- and off- ramps in that location.
State officials are very aware of this Chico Creek culvert, which lies at the mouth of what has been called the Kitsap Peninsula’s most productive salmon stream. Salmon are getting through the culvert, but it’s a struggle. The culvert is considered a high priority by all, but replacement will probably take a special appropriation from Congress or the Legislature, or both.
As I watch our state highways deteriorate, I keep thinking back to the 1960s and early ‘70s when Washington had some of the best roads in the country. It was a pleasure to drive back then, if my memory isn’t faulty. Although money is needed to repair roads today, I think a good argument can be made that salmon were here first and should have been considered when the roads were built. Failing that, many people consider it essential to make things right now.
I should point out that the ruling does not immediately affect county roads or other projects that block the passage of salmon or affect salmon habitat. However, for better or worse, the legal principles established by the 1974 Boldt decision and reinforced by this culvert case could open the door to other types of court-ordered repairs to salmon habitat.