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.
 

Northwest Tribes Sue To Protect Salmon

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Salmon-friendly culvert - Thurston County, Washington

Nineteen Tribes have teamed up to bring federal litigation against the State of Washington to speed up the pace of dealing with more than 1,800 fish barriers associated with state highways, which block more than 3,000 miles of potential stream habitat for salmon. Washington’s legislature has funded culvert replacement since 1991, but the current pace of construction could take up to 100 years to fix the problems.

The Tribal consortium previously prevailed in litigating a preliminary issue regarding the state’s duty to protect and enhance salmon runs. In 2007, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez ruled that treaties signed in the 1850s impose a duty on the state to “refrain from building or operating culverts under state-maintained roads that hinder fish passage and thereby diminish the number of fish that would otherwise be available for tribal harvest.” Tribes and the state have worked to craft a acceptable settlement since then, but lack of progress and funding prompted a new round of claims.

Dan O’Neal, chairman of the Washington State Transportation Commission, expressed little hope for a legislative solution in the near term.

“The Legislature right now is dealing with all kinds of issues. From a transportation standpoint, revenues are down. Gas taxes aren’t producing as much revenues because people are driving less or using more efficient cars or whatever. I don’t think this thing, frankly, has percolated to the top of legislators’ lists, I don’t think they will change anything unless the court directs it.”