Culverts: Lawmakers face dilemma to fund improved fish passage

I’m certainly no highway engineer, but I’ve been thinking about the difference between building roads in Kansas, where I was born, and building roads in the Puget Sound region.

Kansas has its streams and wetlands to be sure, but nothing like the density of natural features that we find in the Puget Sound watershed, where land elevations change constantly and roadways must cross streams and wetlands at every turn.

For many years, road construction in the Puget Sound region involved filling wetlands and burying pipes just big enough to pass the water. It was assumed that salmon would make it through. But based on our current knowledge of salmon migration, we realize that these shortcuts took a major toll on the populations of salmon and other fish.

This week, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling requiring state agencies to correct decades of road-building mistakes that impaired salmon passage on state highways and on state forest roads. Check out Monday’s story in the Kitsap Sun.

Priority watersheds chosen by the Fish Barrier Removal Board. Puget Sound: Pilchuck Creek, Pysht River, Goldsborough Creek; Coast: Newaukum; Lower Columbia: Lower Cowlitz; Yakima River: Wilson/Cherry; Snake River: Grande Ronde Tribs, Snake River Tribs; Upper Columbia: Okanogan.
Priority watersheds chosen by the Fish Barrier Removal Board. Puget Sound: Pilchuck Creek, Pysht River, Goldsborough Creek; Coast: Newaukum; Lower Columbia: Lower Cowlitz; Yakima River: Wilson/Cherry; Snake River: Grande Ronde Tribs, Snake River Tribs; Upper Columbia: Okanogan.

The lawsuit, filed by 21 Indian tribes, was based on the idea that undersized and poorly functioning culverts severely affected the total salmon runs in violation of treaties signed in the 1850s, which promised Native Americans the right to fish forever in traditional locations.

The lawsuit did not address culverts owned by the federal government, local governments or private property owners, but the same principles apply. Steps are now being taken to improve salmon passage based on standards developed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Meanwhile, a state advisory committee, known as the Fish Barrier Removal Board, has been working to establish priorities with top-ranked projects providing the greatest improvement in salmon habitat.

Kitsap County Engineer Jon Brand, who serves on the board, described a two-pronged approach to set the priorities. One is to focus on priority watersheds, with the idea of making major improvements in a variety of streams in a given area. (See map above and board materials (PDF 50.4 mb), Oct. 20, 2015.) The second approach is to coordinate planning for top-priority streams, with the idea of working on entire stream systems at once. Obviously, it does not make sense to replace a culvert upstream if a downstream culvert continues to block salmon passage. Check out the list of top-30 ranked projects (PDF 57 kb).

The Fish Barrier Removal Board is putting together a funding package to be submitted to the Legislature. As Jon pointed out, some of the most effective projects for salmon passage are not in the Puget Sound region nor subject to the federal court ruling. The list also goes beyond state roadways and includes a mix of ownerships based on the watershed and stream priorities mentioned above.

State lawmakers face some difficult funding decisions. With the court order hanging over their heads, along with a 2030 deadline, they may choose to do only culvert-removal projects in the Puget Sound region, even though projects in other areas could get a greater bang for the buck. And will there be money left over to support local governments trying to improve salmon passage in their areas?

I asked Jon about the expediency of early road-builders who must have given little consideration to salmon when they filled wetlands, carved out drainage ditches and installed pipes to carry the flow of water. It was not always that way, Jon told me.

That method of road-building arrived with the invention of large earth-moving equipment, he said. In the 1800s and early 1900s, filling a stream and inserting a culvert was more difficult than building a bridge of logs, given the vast quantities of timber on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Those early log bridges no doubt caused fewer problems for salmon, but they did not last. Eventually, nearly every bridge was replaced, often by dumping fill across the stream and allowing a small culvert to carry the water.

As for my misguided notion that Kansas can ignore stream crossings because the state has no serious environmental problems, I found this language in “Kansas Fish Passage Guide” (PDF 2.3 mb), a document written for road-builders:

“In Kansas, fish passage issues caused by culverts were not recognized by road officials until about 2010, when … research indicated that culverts and low-water crossings were a significant cause of habitat fragmentation in the Kansas Flint Hills.

“Many of the threatened and endangered fish in Kansas are a type of minnow or minnow-size fish. Small fish typically are not strong swimmers, so waterfalls, water velocity and turbulence can be a barrier to passage upstream. Culverts are dark and have an atypical channel bottom that may also discourage fish passage. Lack of water depth through the culvert can restrict passage during low-flow seasons…

“Stream barriers reduce habitat range and can adversely affect fish populations upstream and downstream of the stream crossing. A severe event like a drought or oil spill in a stream segment can wipe out a species, and the species cannot repopulate the stream because of the barrier.”

Kansas has begun to prohibit blocking culverts and to address existing fish-passage issues. As the above-referenced publication states, “On the Great Plains, it’s usually easy to design and construct a stream crossing for a two-lane road to provide fish passage.”

If only that were the case in Western Washington.

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