Recent wins for fish passage in Western states

Oct 23, 2023

By Rachael Hamby

Improving passage and connectivity for fish and other aquatic and terrestrial species is crucial to ensuring Western fish and wildlife can survive and thrive. Culverts — structures that funnel streams under roads — often prevent fish and other species from accessing upstream habitat, and in some cases prevent them from reaching spawning areas. While the solution is often as straightforward as removing the culvert and replacing it with a bridge or other fish-friendly structure, funding for these projects can be hard to come by. Fortunately, Congress has made several recent investments in fish passage programs, and those dollars are beginning to hit the ground.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), also referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, was signed into law in November 2021 and made a wide variety of investments in programs and projects across the country. In April 2022, the Biden administration announced an investment of $35 million from the IIJA for the National Fish Passage Program, administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). Of the 39 projects in 22 states that received funding, several were in Western states, including:

  • Arizona: $325,000 for the Crooked Creek Route 55 Culvert Fish Passage Project, which will replace a culvert that is currently impeding fish passage;
  • Idaho: $500,800 for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe Lake Creek project which will replace five culverts, and $145,000 for the Zena Creek fish passage project which will remove a dam and restore habitat;
  • Montana: $900,000 for several culvert replacement and dam removal projects on 66 river and stream miles in the western part of the state;
  • New Mexico: $648,735 to repair the Hogback Sluiceway Gate to improve passage and habitat access for four native fish species;
  • Wyoming: $250,000 for a retrofit of the Killdeer Diversion Dam to improve both recreation safety and fish passage.

An Apache trout, one of the species that will benefit from the Crooked Creek Route 55 Culvert Fish Passage Project in Arizona, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

In October 2023, USFWS announced another $36 million in available funding for the National Fish Passage Program and encouraged interested parties to submit letters of interest by November 17, 2023.

Another investment made by the IIJA was a new National Culvert Removal, Replacement and Restoration Grant Program, administered by the Federal Highway Administration within the Department of Transportation. This program, also called the Culvert Aquatic Organism Passage (AOP) program, offers grants to state, local, and Tribal governments for projects to replace, remove, or repair culverts or weirs (low dams that span the width of a waterway) that would meaningfully improve or restore passage specifically for anadromous fish species. Anadromous fish are fish that are born in freshwater and return to freshwater to spawn, but otherwise spend much of the rest of their lives in the ocean. While anadromous fish are most commonly found in coastal states, Idaho is home to five anadromous species: coho salmon, sockeye salmon, chinook salmon, steelhead trout, and Pacific lamprey. Anadromous fish used to inhabit other Western states such as Nevada but are no longer found there, in part due to the construction of dams that prevent fish from accessing historical habitats in what are now the Interior Western states.

A Chinook salmon, an anadromous fish species native to Idaho, Bureau of Land Management

The IIJA committed $1 billion over five years — $200 million per year — to the Culvert AOP program, and a Notice of Funding Opportunity was released in October 2022 for the first round of funding. Proposed projects were evaluated on seven criteria, one of which was “Equity and Barriers to Opportunity.” This criterion considered whether proposed projects would bring economic benefits to Tribes or underserved communities and whether proposed projects demonstrated a commitment to hiring and training workers from economically disadvantaged communities, among other elements. The other criteria included conservation benefits to anadromous fish, benefits to the watershed, ecosystem benefits, and climate resilience considerations.

In August 2023, the first grants under the program were announced. Altogether, 59 applications across ten states received funding, and a total of 169 barriers to fish passage will be remedied. In the West, projects in five states — Alaska, California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington — received a total of over $157 million to remove or repair a total of 136 barriers. Washington received the most funding, at over $58 million, and will remove the most barriers at 46. Alaska was next, at over $44 million for 45 barriers, followed by California (nearly $29 million for ten barriers) and Oregon (over $19 million for 26 barriers). Projects are supposed to be completed within five years.

Pacific lamprey, an anadromous fish species native to Idaho, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Idaho, the only Interior Western state that is home to native anadromous fish species, received four awards, for a total of over $7 million to remedy nine barriers. The following proposals in Idaho will receive funding (project descriptions are from the Federal Highway Administration’s table of grant recipients):

  • Idaho Transportation Department SH‐14 Five Culvert AOP Replacements — $3,157,350
    “This application will replace five culverts along Idaho State Highway 14 (SH‐ 14) with open bottom arch culverts to allow for fish passage. This application would include design and construction work. The Idaho Transportation Department is partnering with USFS and the Nez Perce Tribe on this project.”
  • Idaho Transportation Department US‐12 Big Smith and Swede Creek (AOP) Replacement — $2,298,981
    “The Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) is proposing a culvert replacement at Big Smith Creek located in the unincorporated town of Syringa, Idaho. At this location, Big Smith Creek flows under US‐12 before entering the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho County, Idaho. US‐ 12 lies within the Nez Perce‐Clearwater National Forests (NPCNF) boundary. This application will improve aquatic organism passage (AOP) at Big Smith Creek by replacing the existing culvert under US‐12 with a bridge.”
  • Idaho Transportation Department Castle Creek Culvert (AOP) Replacement — $1,048,619
    “The Castle Creek Culvert Replacement project is located along Idaho State Highway 14 (SH‐14) at milepost 14.7. At this location, Castle Creek flows under SH‐14 before entering the South Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho County, Idaho. This application will improve aquatic organism passage (AOP) at Castle Creek by replacing the two existing 3‐foot diameter culverts under SH‐14 with a 14’ span x 4’ rise three‐sided box culvert.”
  • Governor’s Office of Species Conservation Tower Creek Passage Improvement Project — $525,000
    “The purpose of this project is to design and construct a replacement culvert on Tower Creek, located on East Tower Creek Road, off U.S. Route 93. Currently, access to the upper reaches of Tower Creek are inaccessible to all life stages of anadromous and fluvial fish passage. Tower Creek is a high quality, cold water tributary to the Salmon River. The barrier is located approximately 2.25 miles upstream from the confluence with the Salmon River and disconnects passage for ESA listed Snake River spring/summer Chinook salmon, Snake River steelhead, Bull trout, and Westslope Cutthroat trout. By removing this barrier, 10.25 miles of Tower Creek, including the North Fork Tower Creek, will be accessible to these listed species for all life stages.”

Steelhead trout, an anadromous fish species native to Idaho, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries

Other states that received awards: Maine (over $35 million), Massachusetts ($2 million), New Hampshire ($421,600), North Carolina ($472,000), and Virginia ($434,400). To read descriptions of all the funded projects, see the Federal Highway Administration’s table of grant recipients. The Environmental Policy Innovation Center has also published an analysis of the first round of funding under this program. The Interagency Fish Passage Portal contains information about these and many other fish passage projects under 17 different funding programs.

Fish, wildlife, and communities across the West will all benefit from these investments in habitat connectivity, ecosystem health, and road safety. The Biden administration and Congress should keep up the good work directing meaningful funding to projects that help species, and the people who depend on them, survive and thrive — now and into the future.

Feature image: Chinook salmon, an anadromous fish species native to Idaho, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service