Tribes sue Washington to fix blocking culverts
June 10, 2008 · Updated 5:50 PM
"It was only a matter of time. But when the first major lawsuit against the state concerning the revised Endangered Species Act was filed yesterday, pretty much everyone was caught off guard. The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Tuesday morning filed suit in Federal District Court against the State of Washington in an attempt to compel the Department of Transportation to repair and maintain culverts that hinder salmon passage. If we are to achieve our shared goal of salmon recovery, we must begin to meaningfully address the main cause of the salmon's decline, which is the loss and degradation of spawning and rearing habitat, explained Billy Frank, Jr. chairman of the NWIFC. This court action is a step in that direction. The lawsuit, according to the NWIFC, challenges only barrier culverts under state roads that affect the tribes' usual and accustomed fishing grounds. Citing a 1997 report compiled by the DOT and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the tribes noted that barriers to fish passage at road culverts are one of the most recurrent and correctable obstacles to healthy salmonoid populations in Washington. The report identified 363 culverts under state roads that need correction. In the study, the state surveyed 193 of the culverts and found that 177 of them - blocking 249 linear miles of salmon spawning and rearing habitat - offered a significant amount of habitat gain above the blockage. According to the NWIFC, the state's estimates that it would take anywhere from 20-100 years to rectify the entire culvert problem were not feasible in terms of local salmon survival needs. The state simply must fix these barrier culverts more quickly,said Merle Jefferson, natural resources director for the Lummi Nation. We cannot wait for another ESA listing or until there are no more fish left. The NWIFC, again citing the state report, pointed out that even if half of the culverts were corrected, 200,000 more adult wild salmon could be produced annually. Locally, Puget Sound Chinook and Hood Canal Chum were added to the Endangered Species Act but despite the listing, city and county governments have been working together to create a safe haven from lawsuits under a portion of the ESA know as the 4(d) rule. You can't stop people from filing lawsuits but these kinds of lawsuits are part of the reason we've been working so hard for the 4(d) exception, Kitsap County Commissioner Chris Endresen said, noting that the exemption would allow the county to be more proactive in its recovery efforts. The county has been working with the National Marines Fisheries Service on the exemption for the region, Endresen added. That's not all though. Kitsap County has been replacing fish passage culverts aggressively for the past five years as well, she said, noting that by working with the tribes here the county was able to identify and repair three of its highest priority culverts in 2000. Everything can't be taken care of all at once - there's not enough money, Endresen said before expressing her relief that the lawsuit was not aimed immediately in Kitsap County's direction. Thank God it's against the state and not us, she remarked. Nonetheless, Georgia George Rye of the Suquamish Tribe said the litigation was the last resort to try and solve the problem. Unfortunately we've not been able to achieve an coordinated approach to problem solving, Rye said. Now all of us will be spending money for courts and lawyers instead of spending the dollars and energy responsibly on resource protection. It should just be common sense. "