Monday, March 4, 2019

Helping fish cross the road is the right thing to do for everyone

By Ann Briggs

For almost three decades, a major effort to improve transportation and the environment has taken place across Washington state, and this effort is growing. An important beneficiary of this work doesn’t drive, walk or ride – it swims.

Have you guessed it? We’re talking about removing barriers to fish so they can swim upstream to spawn and access habitat for their young. The results of this work will ultimately benefit all of us – by enhancing our natural resources; economically through commercial, recreational and sports fishing, as well as culturally. We collaborate with others to produce better results and increase the investments in barrier corrections to more fully open habitat.
The new and improved fish passage at Little Skookum Creek on SR 108 near McCleary.

A big job, but the right thing to do
Statewide, approximately 2,000 culverts under state highways are barriers to fish passage. Many of these culverts were installed decades ago before we understood the swimming and jumping capabilities of adult and juvenile fish. We’ve been correcting these barriers since the early 1990s, and as of July 2018, 330 projects have been completed, improving access to more than 1,000 miles of upstream habitat. It’s the right thing to do for salmon and steelhead recovery and to help sustain our environment.
In 2013, the U.S. District Court issued an injunction that requires the state to accelerate correction of about 992 barriers in the northwest part of the state. Since that time, we have corrected 55 injunction fish barriers, opening 215 miles of upstream habitat for fish. Approximately 415 more of these culverts must be corrected by 2030 in order to provide better access to 90 percent of the upstream habitat. The state will correct the remaining 500-plus injunction culverts when they reach the end of their useful life, or as part of a highway improvement project.
A fish makes its way through the improved fish passage in Edgecomb Creek near SR 531 in Arlington.

The new fish passage at Edgecomb Creek in Arlington has
made it easier for fish like this one to make its way upstream.

The governor’s current funding proposal to the legislature increases the number of fish-barrier-removal projects completed each year from an average of 11 annually to about 20 annually. That number eventually will ramp up to more than 50 per year. It’s a big undertaking and we’re working with the tribes and others to prioritize projects for the greatest habitat gain. We’re also considering ways to bundle projects to reduce the disruption to human travelers and create efficiencies in project contracting. At the same time, we’re seeking partnership opportunities in watersheds to leverage the most from our barrier removals. Our current estimate to correct all the barriers in the injunction area by 2030 is approximately $3.8 billion, which would require an additional $3.1 billion over current funding.
Seeing the results
Do these projects work? The above video highlights recent barrier removal projects – one near McCleary on State Route 8 at the East and Middle forks of Wildcat Creek, and the other near Arlington along SR 531 at Edgecomb Creek – where we observed fish upstream of the completed projects in fall 2018. We, along with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, routinely conduct field surveys of newly constructed fish passage projects to look for increased salmon and steelhead use. So far, we’ve observed fish spawning upstream at more than half of the projects constructed within the past two years.

That’s promising news for Washington’s aquatic travelers!