Gov. Jay Inslee was right to exercise executive power to shift $175 million worth of transportation spending to expedite removal of culverts that block salmon migration.
It was the right thing to do not just for fish but also for the integrity of a state that made commitments to Washington tribes generations ago. Government, like people, can and should be judged by how well it honors its word.
On its face, the question about the culverts was a legal one. Is Washington obligated under treaty agreements to make the waterways under roads and other obstacles salmon-friendly? The courts said yes, time and again, while the U.S. Supreme Court split 4-4 on the question, thereby affirming the lower court ruling from the 9th Circuit in favor of the tribes and salmon.
But this case was about more than treaty language. It was about the character of our state and its leaders. Would Washington spend billions to undo the damage the culverts had caused and support species that are critical to the state’s identity and its ecosystems? Would Washington also do right by tribes that had been promised long ago that they would be able to fish for salmon forever?
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court — a move Inslee, Dan Evans, a former Washington governor and U.S. senator, and others opposed.
Now the state faces a monumental bill to remove the culvert barriers, upward of $3.7 billion to fully comply, according to one state Department of Transportation estimate. The Legislature this year appropriated just $100 million. Inslee appropriately bumped that to $275 million with money from other state transportation projects that are behind schedule and therefore have unspent funds in the current budget. It’s a start.
“This is a matter of urgency. And not just because the courts have told us so,” Inslee said. “The fate of our salmon is intrinsically tied to our tribes, our orca, our economy and our very identity.”
The courts have spoken. Washington must make culverts passable by salmon. The governor has made an important down payment on keeping the state’s word.