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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Culvert project must benefit salmon, taxpayers

The Columbian
Published: March 15, 2024, 6:03am

A yearlong investigation by The Seattle Times delivers some eye-opening facts.

After looking into Washington’s project to remove or repair culverts that hamper fish passage, the Times’ summary of the report says: “Washington is spending nearly $1 million a day on a mammoth project to help salmon migration.” It later adds: “As costs soar, the Inslee administration isn’t asking this simple question: Is it actually helping salmon?”

Indeed, Gov. Jay Inslee and other state officials should quickly assess the cost and the effectiveness of the program, ensuring that it is working as intended and that it is a prudent use of tax dollars.

Culverts are passageways under roads or overpasses or parking lots intended to allow for the passage of waterways — and migrating fish. They typically look like a corrugated metal tube or a concrete tunnel, and they can be found throughout Washington and other states.

Designed correctly, culverts allow for salmon to return to their spawning grounds. But many passages have been found to actually impede migration, contributing to diminishing salmon runs.

Although the state owns 800 culverts that block an estimated 1,000 miles of streams, most Washingtonians likely have never given them much thought. But a federal judge in 2013 demanded that we start paying attention; a court ruling sided with 21 Western Washington tribes who argued that salmon-blocking culverts violated treaty fishing rights.

The state of Washington appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a 4-4 tie left the previous ruling in place, and an injunction gives the Washington State Department of Transportation until 2030 to replace impediments.

In recent years, the Legislature has dedicated $3.8 billion in funding for the project. But the Times reports: “Washington hasn’t coordinated with a tangle of other public and private parties who own blockages on those same streams, so in some cases the state is spending millions to restore parts of streams that salmon may not be able to reach.”

Progress is being made; WSDOT has repaired or replaced 146 culverts. But it also has identified 281 more (some under construction) that require work in order to open habitat upstream from those priority culverts.

That is problematic, and it represents the worst of government tendencies: Spending money just to say the issue has been addressed while giving little consideration to the effectiveness of those expenditures.

Meanwhile, costs are rising because of inflation and unanticipated scenarios. For one example, WSDOT is building bridges — rather than replacing one culvert with a larger one — more often than expected. This does have some benefits; it helps prepare the state for the effects of climate change and more frequent flood events. But estimated construction costs have ballooned from $3.8 billion to as much as $7.8 billion.

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, has led a push to use funds from the state’s Climate Commitment Act to help pay for culvert renovations and has said of cost overruns, “These are more than just inconveniences; they are a betrayal of the public trust.” At the same time, Walsh is promoting a ballot initiative that would repeal a carbon emission cap-and-trade program that raised $1.8 billion in revenue during 2023.

Political rhetoric aside, Inslee must take the lead in devising a plan that actually helps salmon and reflects good stewardship of tax money. Thus far, the culvert project has fallen short of those goals.