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Fish Passage Barriers

PRESSURE: Aging Road Crossings and Dams

Icon containing pipe, outfall, and water

Large amounts of historic fish habitat in Washington are blocked to salmon by roads, dams, railways, and agricultural water diversions. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that at least 18,000 barriers either partially or fully block salmon from reaching their spawning grounds in Washington.31

Most of the barriers are created when roads cross streams, forcing streams into pipes known as culverts. Poorly designed culverts often block fish from swimming upstream. Many are aging and need to be replaced for safety, as well as fish passage. Coho and steelhead are particularly affected because they travel further upstream to spawn and live as juveniles, and are blocked from large areas of headwater streams.

Other fish barriers are less obvious. Levees and elevated roadbeds can limit fish movement into side channels and floodplains, which are important areas of calm water where young salmon grow.

a graphic containing a pipe with a fish jumping below it



Icon containing wrench and gearWashington has been fixing barriers steadily. Since 2005, more than 3,700 barriers have been corrected, reopening more than 4,700 miles of habitat to salmon and steelhead.

Forest and Fish Law

Under the 1999 Forests and Fish Law, private landowners and state forestland managers in Washington have corrected more than 9,000 barriers, including many that are higher in watersheds than salmon or steelhead travel. Unfortunately, this success has not been evenly achieved across other sectors.

Culvert Injunction

In 2001, the western Washington Tribes sued Washington State for its failure to correct fish-blocking culverts, arguing it damaged their treaty-reserved rights to harvest fish. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling requiring four state agencies32 to correct barriers by 2030 at an estimated cost exceeding $3.6 billion. Most state-owned culverts are larger and costlier than those in industrial forests. As of June 2022, the Washington Department of Transportation had fixed more than 100 barriers, opening 474 miles of habitat for salmon, but much more funding will be necessary to meet the court-ordered deadline.

Grant Programs

Washington State has recognized the need to correct fish passage barriers and has several efforts underway including work funded by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board, and Family Forest Fish Passage Program. Newly approved state and federal infrastructure spending also is promising to address fish passage barriers, particularly where transportation safety and reliability intersect with fish needs.

Since 2005, more than 3,700 barriers have been corrected, reopening more than 4,700 miles of habitat to salmon and steelhead.
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