Imagine you are driving on the freeway, returning from a long trip, longing with all your heart just to be home. Suddenly you are forced to a complete stop because the freeway is broken and you are facing a 10-foot cliff. There’s no way forward, and as cars pile up behind you, no way back.
That’s pretty close to what a salmon experiences when, returning to its native stream from its long journey out to sea, it confronts an impassable culvert under a highway. Every cell in its body is consumed by the desire to go upstream; that is the life goal of every salmon. If it can’t go upstream to spawn, it can’t perpetuate its species.
According to the Washington Department of Transportation, there are 1,987 barriers to fish passage in the state highway system. As of 2013, 285 fish passage projects have unblocked 971 miles of potential upstream fish habitat. But a U. S. District Court injunction has mandated that 1,014 more be corrected by 2030.
Failing to correct culverts that block fish passage violates the treaty rights of tribes whose way of life depends on healthy salmon runs. Treaties are, by definition, the supreme law of the land. We like to think that the days of breaking treaties with Indian tribes are in the past, but the sad fact is we’re stilling doing it – and the result is the same as it has always been: broken treaties threaten the survival of tribal culture and livelihood, as well as the extinction of wild salmon.
Culvert repair is part of the state’s transportation budget – or would be, if the legislature could muster the political will to actually pass a transportation budget, which it has repeatedly failed to do. And even if and when a transportation budget is passed, there will be intense pressure to put the transportation needs of people ahead of the needs of fish and treaty rights.
The Washington Department of Transportation estimates the cost of complying with the federal court injunction – which applies only to tribes in Western Washington – at $2.4 billion, or $310 million per biennium. In the current biennium, they will spend $36 million. At this rate, it will take centuries, not decades, to complete this work.
Secretary of WSDOT Lynn Peterson wryly describes the federal court injunction as “Transportation’s McCleary decision,” a reference to the state Supreme Court order for the Legislature to fully fund public education, even if it means taking truly drastic action, such as closing down other state agencies. When a federal court orders the state to do something – in this case, obey treaties – the state surely ought to heed the injunction.
We understand the Legislature’s dilemma. Voters hate taxes. Legislators like to get re-elected. But when both state and federal courts rule that we’re not meeting our obligations to the next generation of children or of salmon, it ought to be a wake up call.
Both legislators and voters must recognize that it’s time to move beyond our own self-interest, and to do what’s right for our children, the tribes, and the salmon.