Judge orders state to fix culverts blocking salmon

Mar 29, 2013

A federal judge is ordering the state of Washington to fix culverts that block salmon from reaching their habitat, setting a timeline and pressuring officials to find the money needed to do the job.

U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo S. Martinez's ruling was the result of a decades-old legal battle tied to treaties dating back to the mid-1800s. Tribes have said the state has blocked salmon passage and contributed to the decline of fish harvests.

Under the ruling, the state must first fix culverts on recreational lands by fall 2016. The state would have 17 years to provide fish passage through Transportation Department culverts.

Martinez said in his decision that the tribes have been harmed economically, socially, educationally and culturally because of reduced salmon harvests caused by state barriers that prevent fish passage.

"This injury is ongoing, as efforts by the State to correct the barrier culverts have been insufficient," Martinez wrote in his ruling. "Despite past state action, a great many barrier culverts still exist, large stretches of potential salmon habitat remain empty of fish, and harvests are still diminished."

Martinez compared spending on culvert correction with the overall transportation department budget and said the state has the financial ability to accelerate the pace of its fixes over the next several years.

Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, said she expected tribal leaders would soon convene a meeting with state officials about how to implement the court's decision.

"It's been a long time coming," she said. "We're very excited to see this next phase."

State Attorney General spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie said the state was determining its next step, which may include appealing the decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

At the start of the case in 2009, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife identified 807 culverts blocking salmon habitat in the tribal case. By 2012, that number had gone up to 817 despite 24 culverts getting fixed.

"Extrapolation from these data would lead to the untenable conclusion that under the current State approach, the problem of WSDOT barrier culverts in the Case Area will never be solved," Martinez wrote.