Tribes Sue To Improve Fish Habitat

Culvert for Fish Passage (ADF&G)

In a landmark 1974 ruling, U.S. District Judge George Boldt ruled Tribes located near Puget Sound in Washington State hold treaty rights to half the region's fish resources. Thirty-five years later, another federal judge is presiding over a Tribal lawsuit to enforce the state's obligation to actively protect fish habitat. "The judge has already found that there's a treaty right to protect fish habitat," said Robert Anderson, director of the University of Washington's Native American Law Center. The question now is "how far the federal courts are willing to go to compel that result."

U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez ruled in 2007 that treaty rights required the state to take action to enhance salmon runs and fish habitat. He urged the state and Tribes to work together on solutions, but negotiations proved fruitless. More than 1,000 culverts between the Columbia River and British Columbia, most of them owned by the Washington Department of Transportation, are presently blocking or limiting access by fish to hundreds of miles of streams. The cost to implement repairs and provide fish with a smooth and unobstructed water flow may exceed $1.5 billion.

"The problem is the cost is just huge," Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said. "We already don't have enough money to maintain and preserve our existing highway system." The Tribes want the culverts fixed within two decades, but state lawyers say that would cost $165 million every two years — 10 times what the state spends fixing culverts now. The state's alternative plans wouldn't likely change the costs, but the work would take 50 or more years to complete.
 

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