An ongoing legal issue for state legislators is the replacement of more than 400 fish culverts on land managed primarily by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) by 2030, per a court order.
However, complicating this task is a disconnect between the legal order and actually aiding fish passage to their habitat. While state culverts must be replaced, local and county fish barriers upstream and downstream are not affected by the court order, but by remaining render the work done on WSDOT culverts moot.
To address this, the state legislature tasked WSDOT, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board (FBRB) with developing a statewide strategy rather than focusing exclusively on court-affected culverts. The latest update from that group states that while planning is underway, “significant work remains” due to budget restraints stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic response.
Created in 2014, the FBRB is a grant program that helps fund local and county culvert removal. State capital budget funding for the grant program has increased in recent years from $19.7 million in the 2017-19 biennium to $27.7 million in the 2019-21. The board is now requesting $65.6 million in capital budget funding for an additional 89 projects that would removal 118 barriers.
Since its creation, it has removed 79 fish barriers, 16 of which were located upstream or downstream of a court-impacted culvert. FBRB Fish Passage Division Manager Tom Jameson told the House Transportation Committee at its Nov. 30 meeting that addressing “stranded” barriers are important because they “prevent the fish from going much further” after passing through replaced culverts.
While the technical work for the statewide strategy continues, there’s also the cost to fix those barriers and finding the money to pay for it. According to WSDOT, the state has invested $275 million for culvert repair for the 2019-21 biennium, in addition to $185 million between 2013-2019. However, the agency estimates an additional $2.4 billion – $3.8 billion total – will be needed to correct enough barriers to make the 2030 deadline. Under the court injunction, 90 percent of habitat blocked by WSDOT culverts must be reopened.
WSDOT also estimates that even after 2030 funding will be needed to repair or replace aging culverts or the remaining barriers.
“We have a lot to fund over the next four biennia,” Rep. Jim Walsh (R-19) said.
When asked by Walsh how certain WSDOT is about the dollar figure cited needed to reach the 2030 deadline, WSDOT Fish Passage Delivery Manager Kim Mueller said the total cost is based on “programming level estimates” and “off the best information that we have. We are tracking ever year to see our average cost per barrier. We believe this amount…represent what we need for injunction compliance.”
“Our concern here is cost-creep and mission-creep,” Walsh said.
Either way, Washingtonians could see new taxes over the next decade to pay for the work. Chair Jake Fey (D-27) told colleagues the money isn’t there to meet WSDOT’s recommendations, which has the state investing $726 million for the upcoming 2021-23 biennium. “We might show the intention to fully fund in our long-range planning, but the money would have to come from other expenditures to fund the $726 million, unless there’s additional revenue. We got a pretty steep curve here, and we have a diminished bucket because of COVID.”
The next update to the legislature on the statewide replacement strategy is due March 1.