Fish are enjoying improved access to wetlands in the upper Newaukum River watershed thanks to a recently completed project on the Middle Fork Newaukum River near Onalaska.

The project, which replaced a narrow culvert beneath a county roadway, was the first to be completed using funds from the Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board, and the occasion signals the beginning of what promises to be a long wave of similar piscatorial passage projects in the region.

On Wednesday, a consortium of vested entities such as the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Ecology and state and local politicians took a field trip to Onalaska in order to see the results of the project first hand. A series of congratulatory speeches were delivered by the likes of Representative Ed Orcut along the banks of Carlisle Lake before attendees piled into a pair of WDFW owned 16-passenger vans in order to tour the project site on Middle Fork Road just northeast of Dluhosh Road.

Where the Middle Fork Newaukum River flows under its namesake road there used to be a narrow culvert that would become clogged with debris while simultaneously restricting flow and increasing flow velocity. Now, there is a large concrete box culvert in its place that is large enough to drive multiple Volkswagen Beetles beneath at once. Not that the fish would appreciate the traffic.

“One of the biggest drivers for this was it was a velocity barrier for fish trying to move upstream. This stream system in general was identified as one of the highest priorities for fish passage and restoration by a lot of the salmon recovery groups that work in the basin,” explained WDFW fish biologist Cade Roler while surveying the wide open passageway.

Holer noted that the Middle Fork of the Newaukum is home to coho salmon, steelhead, sea run cutthroat trout, and resident trout. He listed permitting, design, traffic control, and riparian habitat development as challenges that pop up on these types of projects.

“This was a really constricted culvert here. Essentially during higher flows it was shooting out like a firehouse and creating a huge scour pool and they weren’t able to swim through it during those higher flows. It was basically disconnecting the habitat and there’s a lot of wetland habitat upstream that those juveniles (fish) really need during high flows to get out of the main channel and not get fire hosed out of the system,” Roler said.

According to a press release from the WDFW the Middle Fork Newaukum project is the first in a series of at least 69 other projects statewide that will be covered by $46.2 million in funding from the Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board. The release also noted that the project opened up two miles of upstream habitat, with more than 201 miles of additional waterways slated to be opened up by future fish passage barrier removal projects.

“The projects funded by the Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board are building on previous fish passage investments by local governments, landowners, and the Washington State Department of Transportation,” said Tom Jameson, WDFW fish passage manager and chair of the Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board, in the release. “We appreciate the Legislature’s continued support of these salmon and orca recovery efforts.”F 

At the project site Jameson noted that statewide there are up to 20,000 fish passage barriers that will require removal or improvements. He added that when the board first put out calls for project proposals they received more than 400 entries but received just $19 million in funding, enough to cover just the first 13 projects on the list.

“That’s not a big impact. Funding for this stuff is always an uphill battle,” said Jameson. “We’re going to be doing this a long time.”

While addressing the assembled crowd at Carlisle Lake, state representative Ed Orcutt noted frustrations with “potential” restoration versus “actual” habitat restoration in previous projects. He explained that many of those projects wound up doing little good because of fish passage barriers downstream that prevented fish from reaching those improved passageways.

Jameson explained that there are strict parameters in place for the Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board that prevent those sort of conundrums.

“It’s in the legislation that you have to start with the furthest downstream barrier so that we don’t have a stranded investment,” said Jameson. “You’ve had a lot of different fish passage programs but not a lot of coordination so you’re getting a lot of dots fixed around the state but nothing to link it together. That’s really the mission of the board is to coordinate all those investments and try to connect all these dots so we actually get salmon recovery out of all these different investments.”

The Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board was created by the state Legislature in 2014 and is funded by the sale of state bonds. In addition to the WDFW, members of the Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board include the Washington Departments of Transportation and Natural Resources, Washington State Association of Counties, Association of Washington Cities, the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the salmon recovery Council of Regions.

Brian Abbott was a W.F. West High School graduate, a lifelong fisherman, and a leader in salmon recovery efforts. He is credited with sparking the creation of the board that now bears his name and served as executive director of the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office prior to his death in 2016. Abbot’s wife Jeannie and children were on hand to take part in Wednesday’s ceremony at Carlisle Lake.

While Roler explained the details of the work on Middle Fork Road on Wednesday he also kept an eye on the next step for the board and its many contributors.

“Working together with other grant programs that fund projects like this we’ve replaced multiple fish passage barriers downstream of this and we’ve been systematically working our way up. And so this was the lowest fish passage barrier in this stream system,” said Roler.

He noted that the next project, on Centralia-Alpha Road, is currently in the design phase with construction slated to begin in 2022. That pinch point represents the final barrier on the mainstem of the Newaukum’s middle fork.

Lewis County Commissioner, Gary Stamper, also attended the ceremony on Wednesday and was full of praise for the work that’s been done and noted that Southwest Washington residents are uniquely vested in the survival of fish, especially iconic species like steelhead and salmon.

“Not far off the I-5 corridor we’ve got the Newaukum, Chehalis, and then of course the Cowlitz River so Public Works has had the opportunity to take the ball and run with it a little bit. They’ve been very engaged and I think we’ve stepped up on a number of projects, especially when it involves fish passage and where it comes to protecting salmon runs,” said Stamper. “Things change. We know times have changed but one thing that’s constant is all the local people and the people who come here, they fish. They fish and they hunt. It’s not that long ago that everyone knew what it once was. I think that that’s the thing we’d like to do everything we can to restore those runs so young people, generations below us can have more opportunity to go out and enjoy the same things we do.”

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