Whatcom County officials are unsure if Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling will create a new urgency for culvert improvements to ease salmon migration — especially as they return upstream to spawn.
Justices divided 4-4 on Monday, with Justice Anthony Kennedy recusing himself, in a dispute over treaty rights between Northwest tribes and the Washington state government.
A tie means that a 2013 lower court ruling that favors the tribes will stand.
Initially, the court's opinion appears to affect only culverts or pipes that carry water under state roads and highways that cross salmon-bearing rivers and streams, city and county officials said.
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Roxanne Murphy, president of the Bellingham City Council and a Nooksack tribal member, said the decision helps increase understanding about the government's responsibility to protect public waterways and habitat for native species. "It's exciting for our community," Murphy said.
"This could potentially come back to counties and cities. This is work that we have to do."
Jon Hutchings, director of the Whatcom County Public Works Department, said the county has been aware of the issue for some time, and conducted a study about 10 years ago to identify more than 100 sites where salmon streams cross under county-owned roads.
"Certainly, any time we go out and investigate — or re-investigate — we make sure that the net result is the removal of any barriers," Hutchings said.
"At this point, we haven't been told what to do by a court," he said. "(But) we have more progressive environmental laws that get us to the same point."
Most recently, a bridge that was built over Jordan Creek on Slater Road made salmon migration easier, even though the $3.4 million project was built to repair a crumbling road, Hutchings said.
"That fixed any fish passage issues for a long time," he said.
County officials currently are seeking funding to replace a culvert under King Creek on the north fork of the Nooksack River, he said.
Andrea Petrich, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, said several projects in Whatcom County aim to make rivers and streams more passable for endangered native fish.
"We'd been doing it before the (2013 court ruling), but we've been speeding up the efforts," Petrich said.
She said state workers last year built a bridge over Mount Baker Highway west of Glacier, replacing an old narrow box culvert on Hedrick Creek.
Habitat restoration efforts are still underway there as part of a $6.9 million project, Petrich said.
Other recent culvert-replacements include an $8.7 million project on Fisher Creek under Interstate 5 south of Mount Vernon.
Petrich said work is planned next year on Tawes Creek under Highway 9 in Van Zandt in Whatcom County and to install a bigger culvert on Gribble Creek under Highway 9 north of Big Lake in Skagit County.