Culverts add obstacles to salmon, state, politics

The Seattle Times today reports on the culvert case ruling and the challenges of replacing fish-blocking culverts:

More than 1,676 culverts from Neah Bay to Walla Walla block more than 2,377 miles of potential salmon habitat. And those are just the culverts owned by the state Department of Transportation. Pipes owned and maintained by other state and local agencies add to the problem.

It’s been a well-known problem for years. But culverts recently became a big, costly liability for the state.

Last summer, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo S. Martinez agreed with 20 of the state’s Indian tribes that the state has a duty to fix problem culverts because they diminish salmon runs, and that violates the tribes’ fishing rights guaranteed by treaties signed in the 19th century.

“You are not going to fix them overnight,” said Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually tribal elder and chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. The culvert case is just one chapter in a long history of tribal efforts to defend treaty fishing rights, he notes. Frank, for one, likes to remind people that amid all the grumbling about the costs of fixing culverts and rebuilding salmon runs, non-Indians enjoy uncountable economic prosperity from the lands the tribes gave up in the treaties so long ago.

In fighting to get the culverts fixed, tribes are simply seeking their part of the bargain, Frank said.

“Our salmon have to come home to us, like they always did,” Frank said. “We want everyone to fish. We want this place to be healthy again.”