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caption: A small, fish-killing culvert on Nordstrom Creek beneath state Route 112 on the Olympic Peninsula in 2016. 
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A small, fish-killing culvert on Nordstrom Creek beneath state Route 112 on the Olympic Peninsula in 2016.
Credit: WSDOT

State skimps on road fixes for salmon despite federal court order

Washington state is under a federal court order to fix more than $3 billion worth of salmon-killing culverts beneath state roads over the next decade.

But it’s not coughing up the money to do that.

The two-year state budget approved by legislators last weekend provides $100 million to replace salmon-blocking culverts beneath state roadways, less than the state spent the previous two years.

It’s also less than half what legislators in each chamber had voted for earlier this year and a third as much as Gov. Jay Inslee had asked them for.

The upshot: Hundreds of miles of habitat needed by salmon -- and the orcas that eat them -- could remain off-limits to the fish despite the court order.

Roads with culverts that are too small or poorly designed often become impassable barriers to fish trying to swim upstream.

“We were real disappointed, and especially in the light of the orcas and the salmon runs are so low,” Swinomish tribe fisheries manager Lorraine Loomis. She also heads the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, a coalition of 21 western Washington tribes.

Back in 2001, the tribes and the federal government sued the state to fix culverts beneath its highways and open up more habitat to spawning salmon.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the tribes’ favor, and against Washington Attorney General Robert Ferguson, last year.

Loomis called the legislature’s failure to do the right thing for salmon a shame.

“It's been many, many years and through a lot of courts,” she said.

State Senate transportation chair Steve Hobbs called the chronic underfunding of culvert work “a ticking fiscal time bomb.”

“I would love to do more for culverts,” the Democrat from Lake Stevens said. “We just simply don't have the money.”

Hobbs’ and other legislators’ efforts to impose new fees on gasoline and truck weights to pay for a variety of transportation projects failed in the legislative session that ended last weekend.

“All of us are extremely disappointed in how much we’re able to invest this year in our culverts,” state Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, a Democrat from Seattle, said. “The short answer is that we didn't have new revenue.”

“The legislature did not adequately fund culvert replacement,” Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee said in an email. “We need to do much work to abide by the U.S. Supreme Court decision, our treaty obligations and to protect salmon.”

“Putting all these culverts in during the 50s, 60s and 70s when we built highways and roads, not knowing what the effect would be, is now catching up to us,” Hobbs said. “So we’ve just got to go back and fix all those barriers that we created over the last 30, 40 years.”

The tribes and Inslee’s office both said they are exploring their options to get more money to help salmon swim farther upstream.