Salmon across the country will be able to swim freely again thanks to the influx of infrastructure funds


Story by Alex Brown for Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

SEATTLE – The $ 1.2 trillion federal infrastructure package signed this month creates a new $ 1 billion program designed to open thousands of miles of congested transportation corridors.

These choked arteries are not roads and bridges, however. These are creeks and streams used by migrating salmon when they return from the ocean to their spawning grounds.

Salmon are born in freshwater and then travel downstream to the ocean where they spend most of their lives. At the end of their life, they move up the rivers and streams where they were born to lay the eggs that will become the next generation.

But all over the United States, much of this spawning habitat is no longer accessible. States, cities, and counties have built roads on these waterways, channeling streams through narrow pipes, called culverts, which often create impassable obstacles for fish.

Many states have tens of thousands of these culverts, making tens of thousands of miles of creeks and streams inaccessible to salmon.

Salmon are known to scientists as a key species because their upstream journey – and eventual death – brings vital marine nutrients to interior ecosystems and supports plants and animals throughout the food chain. Salmon is also a cultural, spiritual, and economic resource for many Native American tribes, and it supports the fishing industries which are a major employer in many states.

But culverts, dams, pollution, warming waters and the myriad of other human-made disturbances are causing salmon populations to dwindle. The Federal Infrastructure Act, with its new culvert program and a host of other sources of funding, addresses this problem.

“This is a unique funding opportunity for salmon restoration,” said Jess Helsley, director of government affairs at the Wild Salmon Center, a group that works to protect rivers in the North Pacific region. “This is our last best chance.”

The Wild Salmon Center estimates that as much as $ 11 billion in funding for the infrastructure program, promulgated this week by President Joe Biden, could be used for salmon-related work, including the $ 1 billion allocated to the new program. replacement of culverts.

The act also includes a significant increase in federal grant funding for salmon recovery on the Pacific coast and creates a new program to remove barriers to fish passage. It strengthens coastal and estuarine restoration programs. It provides more grants for climate resilience projects that can improve habitat. And it invests billions in sewage and stormwater infrastructure, which can help reduce pollution in streams and rivers.

“I don’t know if there is a quick fix for salmon recovery,” said US Representative Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from Washington who has helped push for salmon funding in law. “Maybe it looks more like silver buckshot. But we are trying to pull as many levers as possible. “

Faced with a deadline

Removing culverts is perhaps the most direct lever defenders can pull to restore salmon.

“There is a lot of habitat out there that is in fairly good condition for the salmon, but they just can’t reach it,” said Michael Milstein, public affairs manager for the West Coast regional office. from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. “One of the most profitable things we can do is provide them with that access.”

Washington state is at the heart of the culvert issue, and its congressional delegation, including Kilmer and U.S. Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, led the fight to include the new culvert program in infrastructure law. Every member of the state’s congressional delegation supported efforts to add culvert funding to the measure, although Republican members voted against the final bill itself.

In 2018, 21 Native American tribes won a lawsuit, forcing Washington to remove hundreds of culverts from public roads. Barriers prevent salmon from reaching areas where tribes have treaty-protected fishing rights. The cost of replacing these culverts is nearly $ 4 billion, and state lawmakers have yet to fund the replacement of culverts at a pace in line with the court’s 2030 deadline.

“It was frustrating that the state was unable to align the funding schedule with what the court ordered,” said Leonard Forsman, president of the Suquamish tribe, which was part of the nations tribals who sued the state. on the issue of culverts. “It’s unfortunate that the federal government had to step in and complete this. ”

Kilmer said he was well aware of the budget problems culverts cause the state and wanted to make sure the federal government had “the skin of the game” to uphold treaty rights and restore the state. Salmon.

Culvert funding will not be restricted to Washington state alone, and salmon and other migratory fish in many states face similar hurdles. But the court order has placed Washington ahead of the pack in the painstaking work of locating culverts, identifying obstacles and setting priorities for which projects can open up the most habitats.

City and county governments have also done similar preparatory work, predicting that they could also find themselves at the mercy of a tribal trial.

“We know where we have problems and what needs to happen,” said Carl Schroeder, government relations advocate with the Association of Washington Cities.

Schroeder said his group’s inventory work has so far identified around 1,500 obstacles on roads owned by the city of Washington, with a removal price of around $ 2.5 billion. King County, the most populous in the state, inventoried about 3,000 culverts and found 650 of them were blocking salmon. But it only needs to replace about 100 to open up two-thirds of the blocked habitat.

Across all jurisdictions, Washington estimates it has about 20,000 fish-blocking barriers statewide, mostly culverts, which would cost $ 16 billion to remove. Not all culverts block fish and some obstacles are created by other types of infrastructure. But the vast majority of salmon obstacles are culvert pipes that go under roads.

The Washington State Department of Transportation is responsible for removing most culverts under the court order. The agency has about 400 culverts and $ 3 billion of work remaining, but executives recognize the salmon needs more than court-mandated projects.

“There are so many fishway needs in our state, beyond WSDOT, so we’re hoping this funding will continue,” said Kim Mueller, manager of the fishway delivery program at the. agency.

Washington state leaders insist the federal culvert program is not handouts to free the state from its legal obligations to tribes. Officials say they intend to coordinate demands on state, county and city roads to open high priority watersheds. After all, removing a state culvert to comply with the court’s mandate will be pointless if a county gate remains in place downstream.

“This money is meant to be on top of what we do [to comply with the injunction]Said Erik Neatherlin, director of the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office, which coordinates the state’s efforts to restore salmon populations. “This is an opportunity to put more money into salmon recovery. “

State Representative Debra Lekanoff, a Democrat, has long pushed her colleagues to invest in culvert replacement and comply with the court order. But Lekanoff, a member of the Tlingit tribe, said it would be a mistake to use federal funding only to tick the required boxes.

“If we want to invest in culverts, we have to do it holistically,” she said. “We have to meet our legal obligation, but we have to provide the money, so cities, counties and tribes are replacing their culverts.”

“Wherever you look”

Washington isn’t the only state with a culvert problem.

“If you look at salmon habitat on the west coast, you’re going to find culverts wherever you look,” said John DeVoe, executive director of WaterWatch, a river conservation group in Oregon. “We’re going to have to fix the fish passage issues across the salmon range, and that’s going to be an expensive proposition. “

While Washington has more projects ready to go, supporters of the new federal funding are hoping it will reach other states as well. Kilmer, the Washington lawmaker who has advocated for the culvert program, has acknowledged that his home state would be prepared to raise a good chunk of the initial funding, but is hoping to see the program expand and expand. The five-year program was approved for $ 4 billion, but lawmakers made only $ 1 billion available initially.

Oregon has more than 40,000 barriers blocking the passage of fish, according to Shaun Clements, deputy administrator of the fish division of the State Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. The 600 blockages at the top of the agency’s priority list close nearly 24,000 miles of stream habitat.

“We have a general idea of ​​the scale, and it’s huge,” Clements said. “If we can get even a small portion of that funding, it will really help to shake things up. “

Clements said the state can now replace around 20 to 30 barriers per year. He cautioned that federal funding does not necessarily guarantee that there will be enough labor available.

In Maine, a conservation group called Project SHARE has carried out about 300 projects to improve passage for Atlantic salmon by replacing culverts and other barriers at level crossings. Other groups and agencies have undertaken culvert investigations in the state.

But as the program kicks off, all eyes will be on Washington, where the state is working to meet its treaty obligations to the tribes and restore its declining salmon runs. W. Ron Allen, president of the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, said he hoped federal funding would start to turn the tide.

“We need to get the salmon back to the spawning grounds as quickly as possible,” he said. “What good is our [fishing] isn’t that if the salmon is gone?

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