Closing a highway to save Washington salmon

Washington state is on the hook for hundreds of road culvert projects ever since the Supreme Court let stand a mandate to remove fish barriers throughout the state.

Scott Nicolai, a Yakama Nation habitat biologist, and Dave Morrow, a local landowner, observe juvenile fish in the stream they restored together.
(Photo by Eilís O'Neill, KUOW/EarthFix)

Swauk Creek runs through the dry dirt and the fir and pine trees of the Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forest. Right now, it’s no more than a few inches deep and perhaps 5 to 6 feet across. But, in the spring, this creek is 20 feet wide.

Chinook, coho and steelhead used to migrate up the Columbia River, through the Yakima River, and into this creek. But today, it has only a fraction of its historic fish runs. That’s in part because, when crews built U.S. Highway 97 across the state, they tried to straighten out the creek and force it through narrow pipes every time it crossed the road.

Now, the Washington State Department of Transportation is closing Blewett Pass — one of the state's major Cascade Range crossings — for five days in order to replace of those fish-blocking pipes with a fish-friendly concrete box. The construction alone will cost taxpayers $1.2 million, though that’s nowhere near the full cost of the project.

Washington state is on the hook for hundreds of projects like this, ever since June, when the Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling mandating the removal of fish barriers throughout the state. Washington estimates the total cost of complying with the ruling will be more than $2 billion.

“The streams that we’re trying to restore are like a house that’s made just of hallways,” says Scott Nicolai, a habitat biologist with the Yakama Nation. “Imagine walking into a house and there’s no bedrooms, no kitchens, no bathrooms. And that is what a lot of our streams look like today. They’re very straight — only one wet spot along the bottom of the floodplain.”

Nicolai says that means there’s nowhere for fish — especially juvenile fish — to rest, eat, and hide from predators.

That’s why state transportation engineers are working with scientists to try to make Swauk Creek passable and habitable for fish once again. Replacing the pipe is just the first step.

“The current culvert is a 6-foot by 9-foot corrugated metal pipe,” says Piper Petit, the transportation engineer in charge of the pipe replacement. “That sounds like a pretty big pipe when you think about it and think that you could probably stand in it, but, with the snow melt runoff, the velocity going through that culvert gets very fast, which would be a barrier to the fish.”

Petit says the pipe’s also at a bad angle.

“When they installed it in the '50s, they put it perpendicular to the road,” she explains. “That means that the creek has to turn a sharp 90 [degree angle] to get in and a sharp 90 to get out of it, so it’s been causing a lot of bank scour problems for us.”

This week, crews are ripping out the pipe and replacing it with a concrete box that’s 25 feet wide and 10 feet tall.

“It’s significantly larger,” Petit says.

It will have enough space to put down a gravel bed so, in the winter, the creek can carve a natural path through the culvert, and, in the summer, there will be pockets of shallow, slow water where juvenile fish can rest.

“So, if you were looking at it from the perspective of a fish, you might not even know you’re inside of a box culvert apart from the fact that it’s shaded,” Petit says.

The box will also be at an angle, so the stream won’t have to turn so sharply to make it under the highway.

Rebecca Wassel, a biologist who helped design the project, helps mark where the creek is going to run after the culvert gets replaced.
Rebecca Wassel, a biologist who helped design the project, helps mark where the creek is going to run after the culvert gets replaced.
Eilís O'Neill, KUOW/EarthFix

This project won’t end with the pipe replacement. Scientists are also putting logs into the creek to slow it down and get it to spread out across the floodplain. That will mean the entire creek will have more water in it at the end of the summer.

And, Nicolai says, the restored creek will give fish more than hallways.

“The bedrooms would be places where you’re storing gravel and fish are able to spawn,” he explains. As for kitchens, “different fish sizes and species rely on different environments for food. Small fish need very slow-moving water.”

Nicolai did work similar to this on a little stream that feeds into Swauk Creek, and, today, he’s showing off the results: a little pool that’s teeming with trout.

The first year after Nicolai put logs into this stream, a steelhead spawned right at this spot.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Eilís O'Neill

Eilís O'Neill

Eilís O'Neill is the EarthFix reporter at KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio in Seattle. Eilís (eye-LEASH) fell in love with radio as a 14-year-old high school intern at KUOW. Since then, she’s wandered the world recording people’s stories and telling them on the air. She’s worked at KALW in San Francisco and WAMU in D.C.; she’s freelanced for public radio programs such as The World and Marketplace from places such as Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile; and she’s written for The Nation and other magazines. Eilís has a degree in English and Spanish from Oberlin College and a master’s degree in science, environment and health journalism from Columbia University.