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Making Sure Salmon Can Cross (Under) the Roads in Washington

Thousands of road culverts block the way for endangered salmon.

February 22, 2017

Steve Hinton is the habitat restoration manager for the Swinomish Tribal Community and the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe. Part of his job is to identify road culverts that block salmon's path.  Eilís O'Neill/KUOW/EarthFix

Steve Hinton has a pretty unusual mindset when it comes to his job.

“I try to think like a fish,” he says.

That’s a crucial part of Hinton’s job as the director of habitat restoration for the Swinomish Tribal Community and the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe. He spends a lot of his time trying to figure out how salmon will respond to obstacles in their way as they return from the Puget Sound, up the Skagit River, into little creeks and streams to spawn. One of the problems they encounter are road culverts.

Road culverts are metal pipes or concrete boxes that carry streams beneath the roadbed. In the Northwest, thousands of these culverts are poorly designed and maintained, blocking the way for endangered salmon. That’s why Native American tribes have sued Washington state.

Hinton gave me a tour of some of the problematic culverts in the Skagit River Valley that the tribes hope to get fixed. One was too small, constricting the creek and making the current too fast for a fish to swim against. One was filled with sediment, leaving no room for fish.

The last one had once allowed salmon to pass but had eroded, leaving “a lip of concrete that looks like a knife’s edge almost — a broken knife’s edge,” Hinton explains.

Sources: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

To reach the culvert, fish would have to jump from a deep pool up a little waterfall and try to avoid injuring themselves on the concrete.

Problematic culverts are part of the reason that some Native American fishermen have no fish to catch, says Jim Peters, with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and a member of the Squaxin Island Tribal Council.

“Our tribal members that do fish full time — they’re struggling,” he says.

Peters says culverts that block fish violate American Indian tribes’ treaty-protected fishing rights. That’s why Peters’ tribe joined with several others and sued the state of Washington.

Last June, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2013 ruling that a fishing right isn’t just a right to go out and fish; it’s also a right to have fish to catch.

The ruling required that the Washington Department of Transportation fix its culverts, which the department has started to do — and it's seeing an immediate payback.

“In many cases we see fish access these habitats right away within days or weeks of the projects being built,” says Paul Wagner, a biologist with the Department of Transportation.

What was once a concrete apron designed to help salmon navigate this culvert has since eroded into a sharp, jagged concrete lip that creates a hazard for fish as they try to move upstream. Eilís O'Neill/KUOW/EarthFix

There are between 30,000 and 40,000 culverts in the state of Washington that block fish as they try to get upstream. Two thousand of those belong to the state; the rest belong to cities and counties and private landowners.

Fixing culverts isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap. It usually requires tearing out the culvert, and tearing out the road, to put in a bigger culvert or a bridge.

“It’s a monstrous task,” Steve Hinton says. “You go, ‘Wow.’ You know, there’s not only a lot of design and engineering that goes into this but a lot of effort in moving traffic around it while you’re constructing it. This one particular project we’re looking at or any one is a summer-long project and will border line on a million dollars or better even in the simplest of situations.”

In his proposed budget, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee included about $700 million for culvert repair over the next 16 years — a number which Dean Moon, the fish passage manager for the Washington Department of Transportation, says “won’t cover us.”

“We’re projecting that number to correct around 170 or so,” he says.

The state would need to repair three times that many culverts in order to give salmon access to 90 percent of the upstream habitat that’s currently blocked.

“We’re always looking at ways that we can fully fund that and I think it’s going to be clear that the legislature will need to find additional ways to pay for those remaining barriers,” says Tara Lee, a spokesperson for Inslee.

A culvert much too small for the creek it carries would cost millions to replace with a bridge. Eilís O'Neill/KUOW/EarthFix

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is currently appealing the ruling requiring road culvert repair.

But the state-owned culverts are really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to salmon passage, says Jim Peters, from the Squaxin Tribe.

“The other people that have culverts, the counties and the cities--they see themselves next in line,” he says.

And, if they’re smart, Peters says, they’ll fix their culverts before the tribes sue them, too.


This road culvert is too small for the stream it carries, causing the roadbed to erode.

Eilís O'Neill