OLYMPIA – Thurston County, home to hundreds of salmon bearing streams, has successfully implemented the first comprehensive program to replace fish blocking culverts in the region.
"Taking the time to inventory our culverts and design a system for replacement really paid off. In the first two years alone, we've been able to open more than 7.5 miles of fish habitat," said Thurston County Civil Engineer Steve Johnson during a recent presentation about the program at the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Annual Winter Conference in Portland, Oregon.
Johnson, along with Thurston County Environmental Program Specialist Trevin Taylor, and Thurston County Engineer Scott Lindblom were invited to the regional meeting of Tribal governments to discuss initial program results and how working with Tribal stakeholders helped improve project outcomes.
"Consultations with the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis and the Squaxin Island Tribe were integral to project selection and maximizing overall habitat gained. The Chehalis pointed out a larger barrier downstream of a culvert we initially identified for replacement and the Squaxin Island Tribe played a key role in selection of our largest project at Hunter Point Road," said Taylor.
The primary goal of the Fish Passage Enhancement Program is to increase access to habitat for spawning salmon and other anadromous fish by replacing fish blocking culverts on County owned roadways. The Board of County Commissioners directed Public Works to develop the program in 2016 after reviewing the damaging environmental impacts of fish blocking culverts, and the challenges Washington State faced managing and replacing culverts on state roadways.
"In the first biennium, 2017 and 2018, we were able to complete five projects, turning culverts that once blocked passage into passable waterways for fish. We are looking forward to this year and the next. We expect to complete six more projects," said Lindblom.
Thurston County Public Works developed the program to meet the standards set by Washington v. United States, requiring state transportation officials to create similar programs for culverts that block fish passage on state-owned roadways. The program includes a comprehensive process for identifying fish-blocking culverts, consultation with key stakeholders to create project lists to complete within each budget cycle, and a roadmap for selection and planning in future budget cycles.
The Board of County Commissioners budgeted $4.5 million from the County Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) fund to pay for the first two years of the program. By November 2018, fish passage barriers at five locations were removed and replaced with three pre-fabricated bridges and two larger fish passable culverts. Replacement of the outdated culverts opened access to 7.5 miles of stream habitat that allows fish to spawn and rear their young in areas not available to anadromous fish for decades. Stabilizing the stream crossings also reduced erosion, improved downstream water quality and helped reduce flooding and maintenance issues associated with heavy rains.
"The most impressive part of the first five projects for me was when we completed work at the Hunter Point Road site. We have documentation that places culvert construction at the site exactly 100 years ago. After we finished the project in late 2018, we watched as the first fish swam upstream there in a century," said Taylor.
Trevin Taylor, Thurston County Environmental Program Specialist, speaks about the County's Fish Passage Enhacement Program.
Demonstrating their continued commitment to the program, the Board of County Commissioners have approved $4 million in REET funds for projects in the 2019-2020 budget cycle. Program managers have also secured an additional $500,000 through a Federal grant to support one of the projects in the program.
"As the program gains momentum, we hope to apply for even more outside funding to support future projects. Now that we have a comprehensive inventory of culverts to point to and a process for removal, our support for grant applications has significantly improved," said Johnson.
The success of the program has also gained the attention of others. Johnson, Lindblom and Taylor were invited to present about the program at the 2018 Washington State County Leaders Conference. As a result, other counties across Washington, faced with similar challenges, are using the Fish Passage Enhancement Program as a model to develop their own programs.
More information about the Thurston County Fish Passage Enhancement Program can be found online at: https://www.co.thurston.wa.us/publicworks/Projects/63000/Fish Passage Enhancement Program.pdf