State facing $1.9 billion bill for new culverts

In 1978, North Creek — which originates in south Everett and runs south to Lake Washington — was teeming with chinook, coho and sockeye salmon, along with steelhead and cutthroat trout.

“The fish were so thick you could literally walk across their backs during the spawning season,” said Tom Murdoch, director of the Adopt A Stream Foundation. The environmental organization is based in McCollum Park, through which North Creek runs.

Now, in some years, a few fish return to the creek, Murdoch said. Some years, there are none.

The creek runs through a culvert under 128th Street SW. When it rains, the water gushes through the culvert, keeping fish from getting through.

This culvert and more than 800 others in Western Washington will have to be replaced or removed to make the streams more fish-friendly, according to a recent federal court ruling.

The estimated cost: $1.9 billion.

The ruling applies only to state-owned culverts, leaving the state on the hook for the cost. According to a 2005 Adopt A Stream survey of several Snohomish County streams, however, most of the fish-blocking culverts are owned not by the state but by the county, cities or private property owners.

“It’s not a great leap of legal logic to start with the state and move on to the counties,” Snohomish County Councilman Dave Somers said. “Potentially down the road, it’s a hugely expensive thing.”

So far, the tribes that initiated the litigation have not pressed the issue on non-state-owned culverts.

Where the state will get the money to fulfill its own obligation has yet to be determined, but U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez in Seattle said it has to be done.

Puget Sound-area Indian tribes in 2001 took the state to court over culverts and their effect on salmon runs. In 2007, Martinez ordered the state and tribes to agree on a schedule to replace culverts, but they were unable to do so.

In his latest ruling, March 29, Martinez gave the state 17 years — until 2030 — to replace its culverts.

Tulalip tribal Chairman Mel Sheldon Jr., in a written statement, applauded the judge’s decision.

“We hope for the day it will be a commonly held notion that to protect our salmon resource does not negate economic opportunity and growth; it is our challenge, together, to find creative and innovative ways to have both,” he said.

The state has replaced or removed 22 culverts in Western Washington since 2010, said Lars Erickson, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. Changing out a culvert usually involves rebuilding it to make it much wider to allow the water to flow as it might with no culvert. In some cases, the culvert is simply removed and the stream reopened to daylight.

The state has budgeted $29.5 million to remove fish barriers from 2013-15, but at that pace, only about 13 percent of the culverts on the state’s list would be done in 17 years.

State Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, said legislators are just beginning to talk about where to find the money. Federal grants will no doubt be pursued, and it helps to have 17 years, he said.

Murdoch said Adopt A Stream’s 2005 survey studied culverts in streams flowing to Lake Washington from Snohomish County, as well as Quilceda and Allen Creeks between Marysville and Arlington.

Of 678 culverts in those watersheds, 391 were barriers to fish migration, Murdoch said — about 58 percent.

Of those, 191 were on private property, 99 were owned by Snohomish County and 45 were owned by King County, he said. Of the remaining 56, the state owned 17 and Marysville, Lake Forest Park and the Tulalip Tribes owned the rest.

“The Tulalip Tribes were amazing and removed the barriers on their property as soon as they were made aware that the problems existed,” according to Murdoch.

He said Snohomish County also has replaced several culverts, including all of those in the Little Bear Creek watershed in the Clearview-Maltby area.

Somers said that for now, the best way for the county to approach the matter is to convert the culverts as it repairs or rebuilds roads and bridges.

“Over time it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “It took us 150 years to get here, it will take awhile to get back.”

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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