Update from The NACE Western Region

The State of Washington is currently wrestling with a very serious environmental issue involving fish passage under state-owned road rights-of-way. In 2001, twenty-one Washington State tribes filed suit in Federal District Court seeking to compel the State of Washington to repair or replace culverts (owned by the State DOT) that acted as barriers to fish migration. The culverts were situated in only 14 of the 39 counties in Washington State.   

Dissatisfied with the state’s progress, the tribes sought and won a permanent injunction in 2013 that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018, ordering Washington State to replace all the offending culverts under state-owned roads within the fourteen-county case area by the year 2030.

This case area includes an estimated 800 state-owned barriers within fourteen counties surrounding Puget Sound. The state has estimated costs in excess of $2 billion to address the 800+ barriers under state roads (primarily State highways).

For every State DOT barrier, on average, there are two other (non-DOT barriers) downstream and five ‘’upstream” according to a July 2012 study. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) inventory lists over 3,200 known county-owned fish barriers in the same 14 county case area, with an estimated potential for 10,000 county-owned barriers statewide. The cost to replace county-owned barriers in the fourteen-county case area is currently estimated at $7.7 billion. The cost estimate to do the same thing statewide is much greater.

There are no counties within Washington State that have the resources needed to address a problem of this magnitude. On average, counties can afford to upgrade only 1-4 barriers per year. The Washington State Association of Counties is lobbying the State legislature for adequate funding and a long-term commitment from the state to remove county-owned fish barriers, a reduction or elimination of project match requirements, funding for monitoring & maintenance of passable culverts, continued efforts to identify & inventory new barriers, streamlining project permitting, and tools that assist in speeding up project delivery.

Washington State Counties are greatly concerned that the same court-ordered mitigation will ultimately be applied to the county-owned fish barriers, which would decimate the resources of individual counties for years to come. This is especially true of the more rural counties which are already seriously challenged to make ends meet. Concern on the national level involves the question: What is the potential for Washington State’s fish barrier issue spilling over into other states, especially those located on the west side of the US? After all, this is already a federal issue and fish don’t recognize state borders.   

On a brighter note, in the Western Region, California is making some serious progress toward hosting the NACE annual conference in 2021. It appears that the organizing committee along with NACE staff are starting to home in on hosting the conference in Southern California. This is, at least partly, a result of the commitment by the Arizona County Engineers Association to help California host the event. I don’t know about everyone else, but I am excited to see the NACE conference hosted in the Western Region again and am told that California will be putting on a great conference.


W. Mark Storey, PE

Western Region NACE VP

County Engineer, Whitman County, WA