Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Maintaining momentum: improving fish access and roadway resiliency for every Washingtonian

By Barbara LaBoe

Our Fish Passage Program – restoring access and habitat to salmon that was blocked by previous transportation projects – is massive by any definition.

The number of projects (more than 500), the miles of potential habitat to be restored (more than 1,000 miles) and, yes, the number of road closures or disruptions that accompany this work are all on a large scale. It's work we started statewide in the early 1990s, but a western Washington area emphasis and deadline were added to the mix by the 2013 federal court injunction and subsequent legal rulings.

The challenges also have been massive. No other state DOT or any other organization has ever been tasked with resolving generations of environmental harm in such a short timeline. By the time Legislative funding was ramped up to address the court requirements we had just a little more than a decade until the 2030 deadline. (The federal court injunction requires we restore 90 percent of habitat blocked by state highways within the injunction area by 2030.)

It's taken a lot of work. Through it all we've learned a lot, made good progress and are doing everything within our control to meet the aggressive deadline, though additional funding will play a key factor in that.

So, where are we?

We've done a lot and created great momentum with work stretching from Whatcom to Clallam to Pacific counties and many spots in between.

A map of western Washington shows locations of fish passage projects completed between 2013 and 2022.
This map shows fish passage work completed through 2022, not including work completed in 2023.

As of January 2024, we have corrected 146 injunction barriers, opening 569 miles of potential fish habitat. By this summer, we plan to have more than 200 more barrier corrections under construction contract. Once those additional barriers are corrected, we will have restored 75% of blocked habitat.

To get to the 90% by 2030 requires an additional $3.5-$4 billion. The injunction required us to do the highest habitat gain projects first. Many of the first projects were the lowest cost and most straight forward. The remaining sites are both more difficult and more expensive. We've also learned a lot about what is needed in this work and faced challenges such as supply chain issues, workforce and construction industry shortages, and needed design changes as we learned more about each site. We continue working with state leaders, tribal partners and others on solutions to keep making progress without losing the overall project momentum.

Field surveys done by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife confirm fish are returning to many of the restored waterways, and we've also seen it ourselves. It isn't always overnight – sometimes it can take years for fish to return to some locations after decades of blocked access – but they are returning. In September, in just one example, we shared a video on social media of a salmon zipping through Leland Creek near US 101 even before the final work was fully completed.

Three deer walk through the creek under the road. The large culverts are visible as well as logs put in place to help with habitat restoration.
The first Chinook salmon observed returning to the waterway moves through Siebert Creek in 2021 after completion of a fish passage project at State Route 101 between Port Angeles and Sequim.
WDFW photo

Wide ranging benefits

The work to restore salmon to our state's environment, our waterways, our tribal partners and all people in Washington is important in its own right. But our fish passage work has many ripples of additional benefits.

Replacing aging culverts and bridges over waterways also make our roadways more resilient for travelers. Bridges in flood-prone areas may not need to close as often when new structures are designed for higher water flows. Building new structures to current day seismic standards means bridges replaced to improve fish flow also better withstand earthquakes.

The restored natural stream conditions in our finished projects may also provide better and expanded habitat access for wildlife once the fish barriers are removed. Work at Padden Creek and Interstate 5 in Bellingham, for example, included an area with a history of vehicles striking deer on the roadway. The fish passage design at this site allowed enough room for deer to pass under the roadway, reducing the risk of crashes and injuries or death to travelers.

An adult steelhead salmon makes its way up a shallow creek during spawning season.
Deer use new access under Interstate 5 at Padden Creek in Bellingham after a fish passage project improved access for many types of wildlife. Allowing deer better access under the roadway is designed to reduce the number of deer-vehicle collisions on the highway.

Thriving salmon and steelhead also:

  • Provide an important food source for over 100 species of wildlife, including orca whales.
  • Contribute to Washington's economy through recreational and commercial fishing.
  • Support an estimated 16,000 jobs and over $500 million in personal income alone.
  • Create jobs and benefit local economies through habitat restoration work.
  • Have cultural importance to the many tribes who rely on salmon and steelhead as a food source. Washington state must uphold treaty-reserved fishing rights, ensuring that salmon are present and available for harvest.

Aren't there other barriers?

Our work – and the court order – focuses on state-owned roads, culverts and bridges, but fish passage barriers on state-owned roads are only part of the larger picture. Sometimes there also are blocked culverts above or below areas we have projects. We try to partner with other barrier owners whenever possible when we do work.

Our work alone may not fully restore access, but it can help create momentum for overall restoration of the waterway. Previous work makes it easier for smaller agencies, tribes and landowners to obtain grants and funding for their portion of the work because they can point to the benefit of adding to the new state improvements.

The federal injunction directs us to restore habitat – and to measure that habitat from the WSDOT barrier to the first natural fish barrier (such as a natural waterfall) in the system. We contract with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to measure these. Because other, human-made barriers are considered temporary under the court order (and must be replaced by their owners) the injunction measures the potential restored habitat as the length fish could travel within the system from the WSDOT barrier, regardless of the presence of other human-made barriers near our work.

To be clear, the barriers owned by others also need to be addressed – and the owners are required to under state law – but they're not subject to the federal court order or the 2030 deadline. That means we're often the first to do this work, and we're one piece of the overall watershed restoration puzzle.

Our work is not done

This a permanent injunction so our role and responsibilities extend beyond the 2030 deadline. The goal is to ensure fish access is restored and maintained as new barriers are identified – and we remain committed to this work and program.

And while the scope of work remains massive, it's also rewarding. We've seen habitat improved and fish return to waterways. We've also begun rebuilding trust and relationships with Washington tribes through this work. Since the injunction, we have worked extensively with our tribal partners and continue to do so on how best to approach fish passage into the future.

This challenging, massive amount of work takes time. The reward is knowing that repairing generations of environmental harm by removing outdated fish barriers will benefit Washingtonians for many more generations to come.