Hard to see project’s benefits for fish

The local media, both printed and broadcast, have been advising the public of the pending traffic delays on State Route 8 at McCleary due to the $14 million project to remove culvert fish passage barriers associated with the highway crossings on the middle and east forks of Wildcat Creek. Except these culverts did not present any barrier to fish passage.

If this project represents a response to a decade-long tribal litigation against the state over correcting fish barriers, I can understand why the state has been fighting this litigation for several years. The courts have recently ordered the state to “get with it.”

The protocols for installing stream crossings established about 15 years ago address not only the functionality of the crossing (handling the potential stream flow volumes and allowing fish to freely move upstream) but the cosmetics of the crossing to make them look more “natural,” which leads to bigger culverts and more bridges. During this time period, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by private landowners and taxpayers to meet these water-crossing standards on private and public lands.

Reportedly, the state has an estimated 1,000 such barriers. Apparently a cost/benefit analysis is not part of the equation when looking at these “barrier” projects. It is difficult to identify any improvement in fish passage as a result of this $14 million investment, although there may be both positive and negative tradeoffs to habitat conditions in these two 150-foot sections of stream. Works out to be over $4 million per 100 feet for the McCleary “landscape” project.

A lot of folks and organizations are understandably upset over the delayed passage of the capital budget. A lot of important projects are on hold until that occurs. Maybe the capital budget holdup is partly due to some of our elected representatives starting to exercise a little more scrutiny as to how taxpayers’ money is being spent?

You would expect that since these culverts were reportedly blocking fish passage, there would be no salmonids getting upstream to utilize the spawning habitat. Whether this is the case or not, I do not know. If so, I would expect that the management folks would be anxious to utilize our fish hatcheries to get some salmonid populations started in this newly opened habitat. But that is not what occurs.

Fish management policy looks at the restocking of these newly opened habitats guided by the philosophy of “If you build it, they will come.” That most likely will occur in some streams to some degree. But with the increasing pressure on fish stocks by sport and commercial fisheries, and increasing unmanaged populations of protected species that like salmonids for dinner, and unpredictable ocean habitat conditions, this management strategy most likely will be a long time in becoming successful, if ever.

Additionally, it appears the fish managers on the upper level of the chain of command have succumbed to the spiritual notion that they cannot risk mixing hatchery fish with native stocks in stream habitat to make better use of our underutilized hatcheries.

Meanwhile, landowners will continue their dedicated commitment to invest millions of dollars annually to enhance and create new habitat and protect water quality. The only reward they need is to see these habitats well utilized by fish.

Harold Brunstad