Washington leaders tackle fish passage barriers

2015-06-19 Ashley Bach

Fish passages - those culverts you see underneath roads - are critical in allowing Washington fish to migrate both up and downstream. But what a lot of people don't realize is that tens of thousands of these passages around the state don't work correctly. Perhaps the culvert was built too small, too shallow, too high off the surface of the waterway or built to move the water through too quickly.

Since 1999, with the passage of the historic Forests & Fish Law, forest landowners have been the state leader in clearing these fish passage barriers. State officials estimate that 6,000 barriers have been removed, and about 6,000 miles of habitat have been opened up, with forest landowners responsible for up to 75 percent of the work.

Road Maintenance and Abandonment Plans (RMAPs) for forest landowners have led to the clearance of most of the fish passage barriers, as well as a smaller program, the Family Forest Fish Passage Program.

In a recent meeting of the state Senate Natural Resources & Parks Committee, David Price of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife lauded the Forests & Fish Law for its positive impact on the health of the state's fish, allowing so many steelhead and salmon to migrate freely.

"It's a very successul program, something (forest landowners) should be very proud of," Price said.

According to the state, it's now time to push the clearance of fish passage barriers to the next level. While forest landowners have led the way so far, there are still as many as 40,000 fish passage barriers across Washington. The Legislature last year created the Fish Passage Barrier Removal Board, though lawmakers still haven't approved any money for the board to actually clear any passage barriers. (The board held its first meeting this week.)

Here's how the Vancouver Columbian described the problem earlier this month.

A little-known state board has begun sizing up a daunting task: removing the many barriers that block fish across the state's waterways.

That's no small undertaking. The Fish Passage Barrier Removal Board cites about 14,000 such impediments in Washington alone. And that's just the known barriers — the estimated total is closer to 35,000 or 40,000, according to officials involved in the effort. Many are culverts built decades ago.

It's a job the board, now operating under the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, knows it won't tackle all at once. That's why the group is carefully planning its first steps, said Julie Henning, a Fish and Wildlife division manager who has helped lead the board.

"The problem statement is so huge ... that's millions and millions and millions of dollars," Henning said. "We need to develop a strategic approach to fix the most important barriers that have the largest impact."

One of the issues - besides the sheer number of barriers - is the huge number of local and state agencies involved in clearing the barriers. In the Puget Sound Region alone, there are 15 different watersheds, and each of those watersheds has several different agencies with a say in the work, Price told the Senate committee.

Having a statewide board coordinating the work should help.

A variety of agencies and partners have for years helped remove fish barriers in Washington, (said Jeff Breckel, executive director of the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board). But the problem has never been tackled at this level. Many people are unaware of the huge scale of the problem, he said.

"It's a significant issue," Breckel said. "It's one of the highest priorities we have for salmon recovery."

The biggest problem area is Puget Sound, which has a higher concentration of people, roads and waterways than any other part of the state, Price said. But Southwest Washington is a problem area in its own right, he said.

For now, the barrier removal board will continue developing its strategy for opening waterways in the most effective way possible, Price said. "Funding will certainly be a focus" of the group's discussions in the coming months, he added.

When the time comes, removal projects may target entire waterways, rather than individual barriers here and there, Price said.

"We want to be able to fix whole stream reaches and whole watersheds so that you can actually see some of the salmon returning," he said.