Story by Alex Brown for Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
SEATTLE — The $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure package signed into law this month creates a new billion-dollar program designed to open thousands of miles of congested transportation corridors.
Those choked thoroughfares aren’t roads and bridges, however. They are creeks and streams used by migrating salmon when they return from the ocean to reach their spawning grounds.
Salmon are born in freshwater, then travel downstream to the ocean where they spend most of their lives. At the end of their lifespan, they swim back up the rivers and streams where they were born to lay the eggs that will become the next generation.
But across the United States, much of that spawning habitat is no longer accessible. States, cities and counties have built roads over those waterways, funneling the streams through narrow pipes, called culverts, that often create impassable obstacles for fish.
Many states have tens of thousands of these culverts, rendering tens of thousands of miles of creeks and streams inaccessible to salmon.
Salmon are known to scientists as a keystone species because their journey upstream— and eventual death — bring vital marine nutrients into inland ecosystems and support plants and animals throughout the food chain. Salmon also are a cultural, spiritual and economic resource for many Native American tribes, and they support fishing industries that are a major employer in many states.
But culverts, dams, pollution, warming waters and the myriad other human-caused disturbances are leading salmon populations to dwindle. The federal infrastructure law, with its new culvert program and an assortment of other funding sources, takes aim at that problem.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime 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 area. “This is our last best chance.”
The Wild Salmon Center estimates that as much as $11 billion of the funding in the infrastructure package, signed into law this week by President Joe Biden, could be used for salmon-related work, including the $1 billion allocated for the new culvert replacement program.
The law also includes a major funding boost for federal salmon recovery grants on the Pacific Coast and creates a new program to clear barriers to fish passage. It bolsters programs that work to restore coastlines and estuaries. It provides more grant funding for climate resilience projects that can improve habitat. And it invests billions in wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, which can help reduce pollution in streams and rivers.
“I don’t know that there’s a silver bullet to salmon recovery,” said U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, a Washington Democrat who helped push for salmon funding in the law. “It may be more like silver buckshot. But we’re trying to pull as many levers as we can.”
Facing a deadline
Removing culverts is perhaps the most direct lever advocates can pull to restore salmon.
“There is a lot of habitat out there that’s in pretty good shape for salmon, but they just can’t reach it,” said Michael Milstein, public affairs officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries’ West Coast Regional Office. “One of the most cost-effective things we can do is to provide them that access.”
Washington state is central to the culvert issue, and its congressional delegation, including Kilmer and Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, led the fight to include the new culvert program in the infrastructure law. Every member of the state’s congressional delegation supported the efforts to add culvert funding to the measure, though Republican members voted against the final bill itself.
In 2018, 21 Native American tribes won a court case forcing Washington to eventually remove hundreds of culverts on state-owned roads. The barriers block salmon from reaching areas where the tribes have treaty-protected rights to fish. The cost of replacing those culverts is nearly $4 billion, and state lawmakers have yet to fund culvert replacement at a pace that complies with the 2030 court deadline.
“It has been frustrating to see that the state hasn’t been able to get the funding schedule to line up with what the court prescribed,” said Leonard Forsman, chair of the Suquamish Tribe, which was among the tribal nations that sued the state over the culvert issue. “It’s unfortunate that the federal government has had to come in and supplement this.”
Kilmer said he was well aware of the budget problems culverts are causing the state, and he wanted to make sure the federal government had “skin in the game” in upholding treaty rights and restoring salmon.
The culvert funding won’t just be reserved for Washington state, and salmon and other migratory fish in many states face similar obstacles. But the court order has put Washington ahead of the pack in the painstaking work to locate culverts, identify barriers and lay out priorities for which projects can open the most habitat.
City and county governments have done similar preparatory work as well, anticipating that they might also find themselves on the receiving end of a tribal lawsuit.
“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 roughly 1,500 barriers on city-owned roads in Washington, with a removal price tag of about $2.5 billion. King County, the state’s most populous, has inventoried about 3,000 culverts and found 650 of them are blocking salmon. But it needs to replace only about 100 to open 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 barriers are created by other kinds of infrastructure. But the vast majority of salmon impediments are the culvert pipes running under roadways.
The Washington State Department of Transportation is responsible for removing most of the culverts under the court injunction. The agency has about 400 culverts and $3 billion of work remaining, but leaders acknowledge salmon need more than just the court-mandated projects.
“There are so many fish passage needs in our state, beyond just WSDOT, so we hope this funding will continue,” said Kim Mueller, the agency’s fish passage delivery program manager.
Leaders in Washington state insist the federal culvert program isn’t a handout to get the state off the hook for its legal obligations to the tribes. Officials say they intend to coordinate applications across state, county and city roads to open high-priority watersheds. After all, removing a state culvert to comply with the court mandate won’t do much good if a county barrier remains in place downstream.
“This money is intended to be in addition to what we’re doing [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 pump more money into salmon recovery.”
State Rep. 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 the federal funding solely to check the mandatory boxes.
“If we are going to invest in culverts, we need to do it holistically,” she said. “We need to meet our legal obligation, but we need to provide 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 need to solve fish passage issues across the range of salmon, and that’s going to be an expensive proposition.”
While Washington has more shovel-ready projects, proponents of the new federal funding hope it will reach other states as well. Kilmer, the Washington lawmaker who pushed for the culvert program, acknowledged that his home state will be poised to collect a good portion of the early funding, but hopes to see the program expanded and extended. The program, which will be carried out over five years, was authorized at $4 billion, but lawmakers have made only $1 billion available initially.
Oregon has more than 40,000 barriers blocking fish passage, according to Shaun Clements, deputy administrator of the Fish Division with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The 600 blockages atop the agency’s priority list close off nearly 24,000 miles of stream habitat.
“We have a general sense of the magnitude, and it’s huge,” said Clements. “If we can secure even a small portion of this funding, it will really help move the needle.”
Clements said the state now can replace about 20 to 30 barriers per year. He cautioned that the federal funding doesn’t necessarily guarantee there will be enough work force available.
In Maine, a conservation group called Project SHARE has conducted about 300 projects to improve Atlantic salmon passage by replacing culverts and other barriers at road crossings. Other groups and agencies have undertaken culvert surveys in the state.
But as the program gets underway, all eyes will be on Washington, where the state is scrambling to meet its treaty obligations to the tribes and restore its dwindling salmon runs. W. Ron Allen, chair of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, said he’s hopeful that the federal funding will begin to turn the tide.
“We’ve got to get the salmon back to the spawning grounds as fast as we can,” he said. “What good is our [fishing] right if the salmon are gone?”