Tag Archives: Culverts

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.

Culvert case about treaty rights could be a new landmark

UPDATE, Oct, 25
Former Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife director Jeff Koenings testified in the federal culvert trial on Friday. See AP reporter Tim Klass’s story in the Kitsap Sun. Koenings told the court that diverting state dollars for culvert repair and replacement could harm salmon if it means less money for higher-priority salmon-restoration projects.

I was beginning to wonder if I was the only environmental reporter who recognized the significance of a lawsuit involving Indian treaty rights and state culverts. I wrote about the case for the Kitsap Sun in March, after it appeared negotiations had broken down.

The outcome of the case could well determine how much power the courts hold over state budgets when it comes to the enforcement of Indian treaty rights.

After all, from the tribes’ perspective, the state has been dragging its feet in restoring salmon habitat — including the replacement of culverts that block the passage of salmon. On the other hand, the courts could force the state to spend money that it doesn’t have, or else shift dollars from education, social programs, law enforcement, even other environmental initiatives. That is why I think this is such an important precedent-setting case.

The issue is now in trial, having started in U.S. District Court last week. Reporter Craig Welch does a nice job of putting the issue into historical perspective in today’s Seattle Times.

I was on vacation when the trial started, so we referred the story to the Associated Press. AP reporter Tim Klass has done a good job of following the trial. See his first story in the Oct 13 Kitsap Sun and a follow-up in today’s paper.

If I hear the tribal attorneys correctly, they are looking to fix the major blocking culverts under state jurisdiction within 20 years, rather than the 50-60 years under the state’s current schedule.

If this case succeeds, the next logical step would be to go after counties — which may have hundreds of culverts that need attention. Other habitat issues also would be on the table. Anybody want the courts to set stream and shoreline buffers?

I suppose we’ll have plenty of time to talk about the implications once the decision is handed down. And there will be appeals, of course. No matter the final outcome, this case will have repercussions for decades to come.

Fixing culverts is the next state-tribal legal battle

It is truly astounding the number of state highways that have culverts which block or impair the passage of salmon. Would you believe almost every one has at least one problem culvert — and many highways have multiple blocking culverts?

Working together, the Department of Transportation and Department of Fish and Wildlife estimate that more than 1,800 culverts impair the passage of salmon and that 1,400 of them are keeping the fish from reaching significant salmon spawning grounds.

Western Washington Indian tribes have taken the position that the state has an obligation under the treaties to keep the culverts free, and there is an initial indication from the courts that they have a pretty case.

I covered this issue at some length in the Kitsap Sun on Sunday, after I realized this case appeared to be headed to trial. Negotiations between the state and the tribes will continue up until the trial, now scheduled for October. Depositions are being taken at a furious pace to get them done by October.

Can the state afford to fix the culverts, estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars? How soon should they be repaired? Should the tribes be patient in these hard economic times, or even help to fund the repairs?

The tribes will say that the state should been more careful when the culverts were first designed, and that they have been patient for many years.

My Sunday story has generated considerable comments. For example, here’s what dennybop says:

What the tribes are asking of the State in this case benefits all of us. It’s not surprising that almost every letter here that criticizes this plan don’t seem to address the issues, but the tribes in general. There is a knee-jerk response from many people any time the tribes and a State or local jurisdiction face a conflict.

Here’s part of what KitsapSon says:

If the tribes are entitled to 50% of the resource shouldn’t they also be responsible for 50% of the restoration? Especially considering their tax-free, monopolistic business advantages they have been given.

And here’s a thought from justjunkemail:

Sorry, I have no empathy for what occurred over one hundred plus years ago nor should the people of this and future generations be on the hook for the costs. The time has come to rid ourselves of treaties written 2 centuries ago and create a society where laws are equal for everyone.