Escalating Culvert Costs is Bad News for Salmon Passage

11/21/23 09:56 AM Comment(s) By webmaster

Huge spike in costs to help salmon could derail WA transportation budget

This past Sunday the Seattle Times ran the headline in red above. 

To summarize the article if you did not get the chance to read it:

The state of Washington is facing an unexpected challenge in its transportation budget, with costs surging another $4 billion to improve salmon passage under state highways. This significant increase, doubling the previous estimate, is attributed to complex fish passage projects, broader construction industry pressures, and escalating costs. The state's 20-year effort to address culverts hindering salmon migration, mandated by a 2013 federal court injunction enforcing tribal treaty fishing rights, is now projected to cost between $7.3 billion and $7.8 billion. The elevated expenses may impact transportation projects, forcing lawmakers to confront tough decisions.

The culvert replacements, aimed at opening up salmon habitat, have become more intricate and costly, with the remaining 10% of potential habitat requiring as much funding as the initial 80%. This financial strain is exacerbated by the state's existing challenges, including deteriorating roads, an aging ferry system, and rising highway costs. Lawmakers are grappling with how to manage this financial burden, considering options such as delaying projects, reallocating funds, or potentially raising taxes.

The urgency to secure additional funding is heightened by a 2030 deadline, to repair 90% of all state-owned culverts, set by the federal court; and an extra $725 million is needed in the current biennium to stay on track. Lawmakers are currently assessing strategies to address the escalating costs, with discussions revolving around potential delays to state projects and the exploration of funding sources, including the state's carbon auctions. While returning to court is theoretically an option, both the Tribes and the state currently express a preference for finding solutions within the existing framework, despite the considerable financial challenges posed by the escalating costs.

At this time of this writing, the article summarized above has generated 218 comments, many of them ill-informed and offensive.

Whether the State can find the extra billions or not really is not the issue. We should be asking ourselves WHY is it going to cost so much?  The answer is because the state has prescribed how the culverts must be repaired. The options are limited (just 3 if I recall) and the remaining culverts are ill suited for those options without incurring great expense. Our whole business is predicated on providing better fish passage solutions, but when the state keeps going back to the same consultants and engineering firms, you aren’t going to get new solutions.  Rather, you codify old techniques and call everything else experimental rather than innovative.  It’s a copout from doing the real work and its costing us all billions.

I’m not suggesting the proposed solutions won’t ever work, they can, at least some of the time. I am saying that most of the Tribal members I know are remarkably practical. Collectively, their goal is safe, timely, and effective fish passage in every migratory waterway in the state.  Not in the next 50 years, but now, and for good reasons.  However, here the parties ended up in Court, and the decision rendered by the Court that was originally estimated at $1.8B in the days after the ruling is now expected to be 4x that amount; and the state ultimately budgeted funds pursuant to that court order, but even those revised estimates were low. The state has had no choice.  All these efforts will help, but it is taking funds from all sorts of fish passage projects that the state could pay for that would have a much bigger impact on salmon recovery for the same dollars spent. It seems to me that should leave an opening for fruitful negotiation and better results.

Our company provides fish passage solutions around the world.  Nowhere is it more expensive than the way we do it here. Other areas of the world are tackling the fish problem too; it’s just that they embrace innovation.  For example, in the European Union, all countries are subject to the Water Framework Directive. It requires connectivity between all waterways; and adding fishways at barriers and dams is an integral part of it. By spending so much money on fixing culverts, the state has no money for other projects that would yield a greater return on the numbers of salmon.

We have been advocates for better and less-expensive fish passage because the problem is so enormous; and if not more efficiently managed, we are going to see continuing declines of salmon in every waterway, without the tangible results nearly everyone wants to see, but there are limits before support will erode.  So, what are some solutions?

1)        The state does need to renegotiate with the Tribes, but not to do less, but rather to do more fish passage, for less.  It doesn’t help anybody, most importantly the fish, to improve fish passage upstream or downstream of other barriers, if for example the state-owned barrier is between a city owned barrier and a county owned barrier.

2)        Environmental DNA testing is now capable of telling us, quickly and inexpensively, what waters are safe for fish (no pathogens), and whether any fish are there today, and in what abundance.  This data should be used to re-prioritize what projects are funded – and yes that probably means the state giving monies to Tribes, counties, and cities where those streams connect with the state-owned culverts, so that it’s not just complying with a court order, but producing greater benefits and measurable results in that waterway.

3)        Explore the innovative technologies that are now available to solve these passage issues, even if only temporarily, to meet the court-imposed deadline, and to extend the amount of time for the biggest, most-expensive, and most-complicated projects to be built. It’s simple supply and demand. This will bring the costs down without changing the designs for these projects. Can it be done, of course. We wanted to fix this problem 8 years ago under I-90 in Issaquah for Kokanee in Lake Sammamish.

4)        Lengthen the season that fish passage work can be performed. Currently, working around fish passage runs can concentrate the time available to work on these projects during the year, but what if there were temporary passage systems used by every contractor to assure fish passage, regardless of the time of year of construction. Perhaps the state buys this equipment and loans or leases it to the contractors who win the construction bids, to help bring down costs.

5)        The state needs to redefine what the private-public partnership really means. It MUST include private businesses who are experts in the field; it can’t just be limited to NGO’s who typically do not have the technical expertise nor product experience to offer alternative solutions; or consultants who, by their very business models of design and build, are too often conflicted to advocate for solutions outside their own wheelhouse. Almost always, innovative businesses are put in the “vendor” category by government agencies and excluded from having a seat at the table when considering options, rather than recognizing them as specialists and experts who are using their own resources to solve public policy problems, and therefore constantly seeking more cost efficiencies. It is assumed they are only there for the money, not to solve the problem. Why? If you had a serious health problem, would you be content to talk with a general practitioner or would you want a referral to the best specialists available or access to the most cutting-edge treatments?


These are just some ideas that can save hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars AND provide more fish passage faster and at more locations.  The lack of creativity, urgency, and measurable improvements to the salmon runs is a direct result of the non-fish type barriers that exist today, such as those described above. This is a case where money can’t solve everything, at least if it’s not spent wisely. Making science-based decisions in a vacuum, without marrying that research with the latest technologies, is a recipe for spiraling costs and disappointing results. Political agendas and institutional egos must be set aside, by all sides.


State and federal authorities are now throwing a lot of money at the fish passage problems, but they are not spending it in all the right places.  The Tribes know this, heck, all of us should know it. Policies at the state and federal level need to change, and agencies need to be held accountable to assure they are assisting rather than hindering the policies and making much more efficient use of the funding available. Finally, our representatives need to find ways to adopt and deploy more affordable innovations (especially those home-grown in this state) that will save all of us so much money, while improving fish passage faster.  There was a $10 million dollar Fish Passage Accelerator Fund proposal that was proposed in the last legislative session that would have been a great start. It had bi-partisan support, but never made it into the final cuts in the budget, at least in part because no state agency wanted to incur the costs to manage it.


Glad to be part of this dialogue.  Looking forward to a call from WashDOT and state legislators looking for better solutions to their escalating culvert fish passage costs.





Vincent E Bryan III

Founder and CEO

Whooshh Innovations Inc.


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