DOT bridging gap between infrastructure, environment

McCleary fish-passage project on schedule, on budget

Though the construction is obvious from the highway as commuters and travelers pass through the congested two-lane construction area on Highway 8 near McCleary, the total scope of the project is mostly unnoticed from the pavement above.

“You pass over it in a heartbeat,” said state Department of Transportation communications consultant Doug Adamson. He looked out at the traffic passing at 45 mph. Though 15 mph slower than usual, it still passed the construction quickly.

The Highway 8 Middle and East Forks Wildcat Creek Remove Fish Barriers project is a two-year project that has caused traffic delays and reduced travel by two lanes through rural McCleary. The project also has closed the Highway 108 exit to the west side of McCleary for the duration of the project.

The project is necessary to comply with a 2013 federal injunction that requires the state to correct fish barriers in water resource inventory areas. It’s being done in two phases and aims to replace fish culverts with bridges.

Currently, Wildcat Creek passes beneath the highway through narrow concrete culverts. The culvert at the middle fork was tall but narrow, while the culvert at the east fork is split in two shorter tunnels. During high-water events — floods, heavy rains, excessive snow melt — the rising water creates a “velocity barrier” for the fish. Think of the culverts like a funnel on a garden hose, DOT project engineer John Romero explained at the site: When the high water flows to the culverts, it backs up and more water is pushed through the narrow passage increasing the pressure. That increases the speed of the water that fish have to navigate.

Additionally, the culverts provide few natural habitat areas where fish can rest during the passage.

Both of the culverts are long, and the East Fork culvert is especially dark because of how low the ceiling was built.

“They say people will only go so far into a tunnel without seeing light before they turn back — that seems to be true with fish as well,” Romero said.

The project doesn’t just replace those culverts, it removes culverts completely. The DOT is simply building bridges, and with thorough hydrologic engineering and the help of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, it’s rebuilding the river forks into natural habitats for fish.

Over the middle fork, the bridge will span 110 feet. Over the east fork, the bridge will span 160 feet.

To begin the project, the state DOT and contractor (Ceccanti Inc. of Tacoma) worked with Fish and Wildlife to dam off the creek on either side of the project. Pipes were put in place to allow for the water to continue flowing. Within the dammed area, the fish were caught and moved out of the project area — from minnows and fry to lamprey.

Once the fish were moved, the contractor excavated the area, removing the fill that had been placed above the culverts, allowing the highway to cross the slight valley created by the creek. The contractor removed the highway and its structures that were buried deep beneath the surface.

Then, the contractor restored the creek according to design from the hydrologic engineer. The restorations differ for each fork: The middle fork features slight meanders, boulders and tree root systems to provide resting pools and habitat as well as control stream erosion; the east fork features a long wide pool with sunken habitat features, and one tree root feature.

With the creek restored, the bridge is then built over the creek. Bridge shafts are driven 40 to 50 feet deep, and abutment walls are built and then concealed with more concrete for the bridge. Cranes are brought in to set the girders (the east fork girders were set on Aug. 24, causing only a few traffic delays — the longest lasting 12 minutes).

After the girders are set, more labor gets under way. About a month is spent spacing and sizing bars and loading the bars to ensure everything is up to standards.

“This is all labor, and all hard work,” Romero said, looking out over the green rebar tied into place above the middle fork. “It’s a little more involved than a sidewalk.”

The bridges are built to withstand the constant traffic headed to and from the Harbor, including heavy industrial traffic from the Port and the logging industry, as well as the weather challenges.

“Everything is built to a 75-year standard,” Adamson said.

With everything prepared, the deck is poured, weather permitting. And so much of the time line is dictated by weather. The concrete will only properly set at a certain temperature, and rain can effect both concrete and painting. So far, the project is on schedule, Romero noted.

“Mother Nature is in control of a lot of things,” Adamson says. “We’re moving forward while keeping our fingers crossed.”

The project is being offset by about a month, so when the middle fork is ready to have the deck poured, the girders are being put in place on the east fork. By the time the rebar work is done on the east fork, the deck will be ready on the middle fork and the contractor can shift gears. It’s constant phases.

In the spring, sometime between February and March, the traffic will be shifted, and all will pass over the bridges built this summer. Then phase two begins, and the creek is restored and bridges are built on the north side of the project.

In the end, the total project could cost some $17 million. The project currently is on budget, Romero said.

That may seem like a steep price tag for fish passages, but Romero says it’s important to do right by nature.

“We have an obligation to be good environmental stewards,” Romero said. “(The culverts were) built to move water before we fully knew the impacts to the environment. We know it now. This will allow more fish to pass through for more spawning and a better chance to keep the population going.”

Romero said a similar project recently was completed at Skookum Creek in Mason County near Shelton. When the project was complete and the creek was finally opened, it was almost immediate that fish returned to the creek.

“You’ve heard people say there are so many fish you could walk on them — well that wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration in that case,” Romero said.