SEATTLE — The $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure package signed into law this month creates a new billion-dollar program designed to open thousands of miles of congested transportation corridors.
Those choked thoroughfares aren’t roads and bridges, however. They are creeks and streams used by migrating salmon when they return from the ocean to reach their spawning grounds.
Salmon are born in freshwater, then travel downstream to the ocean where they spend most of their lives. At the end of their lifespan, they swim back up the rivers and streams where they were born to lay the eggs that will become the next generation.
But across the United States, much of that spawning habitat is no longer accessible. States, cities and counties have built roads over those waterways, funneling the streams through narrow pipes, called culverts, that often create impassable obstacles for fish.
Many states have tens of thousands of these culverts, rendering tens of thousands of miles of creeks and streams inaccessible to salmon.
Salmon are known to scientists as a keystone species because their journey upstream—and eventual death—bring vital marine nutrients into inland ecosystems and support plants and animals throughout the food chain. Salmon also are a cultural, spiritual and economic resource for many Native American tribes, and they support fishing industries that are a major employer in many states.
But culverts, dams, pollution, warming waters and the myriad other human-caused disturbances are leading salmon populations to dwindle. The federal infrastructure law, with its new culvert program and an assortment of other funding sources, takes aim at that problem.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime funding opportunity for salmon restoration,” said Jess Helsley, director of government affairs at the Wild Salmon Center, a group that works to protect rivers in the North Pacific area. “This is our last best chance.”