Thursday, July 20, 2023

Fixing fish barriers on US 12 and SR 8 means temporary traffic changes and hopefully happy orcas

By Angela Cochran

We love orcas. Who doesn’t? But lately we have heard the orcas may not love us so much. While the so-called “orca uprising” is mostly happening in European waters, we do have a lot of orcas in the Pacific. We also have a lot of fish habitat improvement projects on the Olympic Peninsula this summer. Coincidence? Not really. While the goal isn’t so much to prevent the orcas’ supposed revenge, these projects will increase the number of fish (a.k.a. orca food) in the ocean. Without their natural food source, it’s clear who the orcas will turn to when they are hungry. …see why these projects are so important?

OK, that last part may not be true, but they are important.

One of these projects in Grays Harbor County will have five work zones for about two years on US 12 and State Route 8 between Montesano and east of McCleary. We are removing barriers to fish at three locations under US 12 and two locations under SR 8. Outdated culverts under the two highways make it difficult for fish to reach habitat. This in turn impedes their migration and prevents successful spawning. The culverts we are fixing under US 12 carry water to Wenzel Slough, Vance Creek and Camp Creek. Two culverts under SR 8 convey water to Wildcat Creek and Mox Chehalis Creek.

Crews will set up three work zones on US 12 and two work zones on SR 8
that will be in place through late 2025.

Reduced lanes and speed limits

If you have traveled US 12 or SR 8 recently, you may have seen some daytime lane and shoulder closures. Our contractor started working to set up the work zones on June 12. They have been doing survey work and installing temporary lighting. As each work zone is set up with the temporary lighting and barriers, the speed limit will be reduced from 60 mph to 50 mph around it.

Crews installing the temporary lighting at the Wenzel Slough work zone

Once the work zones are set up, crews will start building crossover lanes as a way to keep people moving through each work zone. Crossover lanes create a route for traffic through the median. People then travel on the other side with one lane in each direction. Building the crossover lanes will take about a month at each location. We started work at Wenzel Slough near Elma this month.

Shifting lanes ahead

We expect to shift traffic onto the crossover lane at Wenzel Slough by the end of September. Then crews will move to the next location at Vance Creek also near Elma, then Camp Creek near Montesano. After completing the crossover lanes on US 12, crews will move to SR 8 and build the crossover lane for the Wildcat Creek work zone, then finally Mox Chehalis Creek. Travelers will see the temporary changes until the end of the project in late 2025. We’ll keep people moving through the new work zone by reconfiguring the highway to accommodate both directions of traffic on one side. You might remember we took the same approach on SR 8 in the McCleary area several years ago.

The crossover lane will look similar to the one pictured here from a past project near
the middle fork of Wildcat Creek in McCleary.

Once traffic is shifted, crews will work on the eastbound side of the highway first at four of the work zone locations. This means that eastbound traffic will be shifted to the westbound side of the road. The other location, Camp Creek near Montesano, will have traffic shifted to the eastbound side of the highway while crews work on the westbound side first. This traffic pattern will remain in place for up to a year. Next summer, traffic will shift onto the opposite sides of the highways at each location.

Both directions of traffic will travel on the same side of the road around the work zone.
Traffic divider sticks will separate the lanes.

We’re gonna need a bigger culvert … and four bridges

We will replace four culverts with new bridges. The new bridges for the Wenzel Slough and Vance Creek worksites may not look like a bridge while driving over them. The contractor will build full-span bridges at the Camp Creek and Wildcat Creek locations. Crews will bring in a pre-cast box culvert for the stream that flows to Mox Chehalis Creek. Box culverts are larger than the culverts of the past. They allow a more natural stream flow, and fish can easily swim through them.

Each location will also feature a lot of work to improve and restore each creek. During construction, crews will rebuild each streambed by using a mix of gravel, varying-sized rocks and logs. This will support fish as they move through each lifecycle.

Why all this fish barrier removal work?

While not exactly an effort to prevent orca attacks on boats – or us – the work is related to our commitment to help salmon recovery and comply with state laws. We created the Fish Passage Barrier Removal Program in 1991. The program fixes barriers that restrict or block fish access under state highways. To date, we have corrected hundreds of barriers that have restored access to over 1,000 miles of fish habitat.

In 2013, the U.S. District Court issued a decision requiring Washington state to move more quickly to correct fish passage barriers. These creeks are among many fish barrier removal projects included in the federal ruling.

Improving access in these creeks means young fish will grow enough to make it to the ocean, and spawning salmon will have a place to return and lay eggs for the next generation. This is good news for everyone (especially us and the orcas).

Let’s work together to keep everyone safe

Reduced speed limits, roadway signs and installation of extra lighting around the work zones help keep our workers and all roadway users safe. We also need your help. Plan ahead by using our app and real-time map and allow extra travel time. Whenever approaching work zones please remember to:

  • Slow down – drive the posted speeds, they are there for your safety.
  • Be kind – our workers are out there helping to keep you safe and improve the roadways.
  • Pay attention – both to workers directing you and surrounding traffic; put your phone down when behind the wheel.
  • Stay calm– expect delays, leave early or take an alternate route if possible; no meeting or appointment is worth risking someone’s life.

1 comment:

neighbor/retired WSDOT engineer said...

What this blog article doesn't say is that the SR 8 MP 9.1 culvert replacement near Mox Chehalis Creek is totally pointless. There are only 100 feet of habitat upstream of the highway because the stream falls 4 feet out of a county/private culvert which prevents any fish passage beyond. South of the highway the tiny 4-foot-wide (at most) creek flows 650 feet through a clogged, overgrown private channel and small private culvert before emptying into Mox Chehalis Creek. There is little chance of those restrictions ever being improved. So any improvement to this "fish passage barrier" will be negated by the upstream culvert and the downstream channel restrictions. Plus, according to a WSDOT rep, the new structure will be 18 feet wide, for a current 4-foot-wide creek! There must be better places to spend that kind of funding than here.

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