The cost of fish barrier removal

The cost of fish barrier removal
At a recent work session of the Senate Transportation Committee, WSDOT and other state officials outlined the pathway to removing hundreds of fish barriers by 2030 as part of a court injunction. The total cost for removal is estimated to be more than $3 billion. Photo: Northwest Treaty Tribes

A U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this year upheld a lower court ruling ordering Washington state to remove hundreds of fish barriers that inhibit salmon passage on its land by 2030. Now, stakeholders and state officials are trying to figure out how to accomplish that on time, while also removing barriers on city or county land.

A presentation at a Nov. 14 work session of the Senate Transportation Committee outlined a new budget request by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) that estimates a price tag of more than $3 billion between now and the 2029-31 biennium.

WSDOT has roughly 2,000 fish barriers on land it manages, half of which are subject to the injunction order. However, only 415 of the 992 barriers must be removed by 2030. WSDOT plans to fix the other 557 culverts when they’ve reached the end of their structural life, or when the work can be incorporated into a nearby transportation project.

WSDOT Environmental Services Office Director Megan White explained to panel members that the culverts were originally designed to move water, not fish. Also, the water flow through those culverts has increased significantly since they were first installed.

That the faulty design was created at the federal level was part of the argument made by State Attorney General Bob Ferguson during the lawsuit in opposition to the injunction.

There are currently 67 active fish barrier removal projects. Between 2013-2017, WSDOT spent $99 million on 40 individual barrier removal projects, and another $30 million on 15 barrier removals as part of larger transportation projects. However, that still leaves 415 barriers to remove by 2030. The current budget appropriates $736 million to remove 146 barriers on schedule.

In WSDOT’s proposed investment request to the Office of Financial Management, the agency proposes an additional $3 billion to remove the remaining barriers. Most of it ($2.5 billion) would be spent between the 2023-25 and the 2029-31 biennium.

White added that the funding request also includes money to be spent on culverts not affected by the injunction, “because we don’t think we can completely ignore barriers outside the case area. We want to get the most work done for the money that’s invested.” That can include a design-build approach which cuts down costs, she said.

Sen. Curtis King (R-14) noted there might be opportunity to reduce regulations surrounding these projects to expedite completion. “We got to convince the Department of Ecology we don’t need to wait five months for a permit. They ought to know and trust us that we can do these things and do it correctly.”

He also emphasized the need for inter-government collaboration. “We all believe that as soon as we get close with the state requirements that the next suit (is) going to be for cities and counties. It would seem to me that as we look at the multitude of counties that we find all of these culverts in, that the counties ought to be willing to work with us. The cities ought to be willing to work with us. We can all work together.

“My concern is we all think we have until 2030,” he added. “What I have heard now is we’ve gone from $2.3 billion to $3.4 billion. My concern is by the time we get to 2028 we’re going to be at $5 billion.”

Program Manager Justin Zweifel told panel members they employ two strategies in removing barriers, one that maximizes the amount of habitat restored and another that covers numerous barriers within a single project.

Private forestry groups have pointed to successful efforts in the private sector in removing fish barriers as a model the state might emulate. Ongoing efforts to remove fish barriers not affected by the court ruling are conducted by the state Fish Barrier Removal Board, created by the legislature in 2014. Its next meeting is Nov. 20 in Olympia.

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