ISSAQUAH — For the first time, the U.S. government will distribute infrastructure money to improve road culverts that block the travels of fish.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg paid a visit Thursday afternoon to Carey Creek, a tributary of Issaquah Creek that is an ancient migration route for now-threatened salmon.

Standing under smoky skies with Democratic politicians, he announced that the first $196 million of a $1 billion fish-passage fund — a small slice of President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package — is now available for grant applications by local and tribal conservation departments. Fish transportation is infrastructure, he emphasized.

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“In South Bend, along the run of our river, we have one dam along with one fish ladder. Here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s more complicated than that,” said Buttigieg, former mayor of the city in Indiana.

He turned to thank Muckleshoot Tribe Chair Jaison Elkins, saying “I really appreciate your expression of the deep nation-to-nation obligations at stake, in making sure that the United States lives up to its word when dealing with tribal leaders.”

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Elkins had described his sadness at seeing the existing culvert, a 10-foot-wide pair of concrete chutes that spill through a steel spout onto a scoured pond of Carey Creek, which runs under a county road near Highway 18 and the growing suburb of Maple Valley. “My elders tell me that before all this development, these streams were full of salmon,” he said.

King County says it has identified 50 high-priority projects, and considers Carey Creek a top competitor to win some federal aid. The project will open 3 miles of upstream habitat, within healthy forests, where Chinook, coho, sockeye, steelhead and cutthroat trout would benefit, the official project description says. With two years of biological and engineering work in hand, the county is among the most “shovel ready” regions to put U.S. culvert grants to work, said County Executive Dow Constantine.

Carey Creek’s culvert, from the mid-20th century, would be replaced by a 35- to 40-foot-long bridge that costs around $4 million, said Evan Lewis, special projects manager for county fish passage. It will eliminate a 2-foot leap for salmon into what he called a fire hose of water. Fish return almost immediately when barriers are removed, Lewis said, the prime example being the removal of Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula.

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In his election-season appearance, Buttigieg joined Democratic elected officials including U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria CantwellReps. Kim Schrier and Rick Larsen and local and tribal leaders.

“Salmon travel hundreds of miles to spawn, only to be blocked by barriers within a few miles of pristine habitat. Simply put, culverts are wiping out salmon on the one-yard line,” said a statement by Cantwell, who played a leading role in crafting the infrastructure grants.

The federal aid is also available to improve weirs, which are controlled spillways over small dams. The goal is to help anadromous fish — including salmon, sturgeon, the eel-like lamprey, shad and river herring — with better access as they return upstream from saltwater into their freshwater spawning habitat. Their instincts are the original autonomous-navigation system.

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Ben Gregory, a county project engineer, said a chinook arrived Wednesday afternoon at Carey Creek, after swimming some 30 miles inland from Puget Sound, and leapt into the culvert.

Buttigieg also paid a visit Thursday morning to Wenatchee’s Apple Capital Loop, where this March he announced a $92.1 million federal award to rebuild road and rail crossings next to the Columbia River.

Issaquah and Wenatchee are both within the vast 8th Congressional District, where Schrier faces a reelection challenge from GOP primary winner Matt Larkin. Murray is also running for reelection against Republican challenger Tiffany Smiley of Pasco, in the Nov. 8 election.

Asked about the event boosting Schrier’s campaign, Buttigieg said he can’t discuss it while on federal business. “If you look at my travel this month, you’ll find me in red, blue and purple states,” he said. Visits like this are important to help Americans see results, he said. Schrier answered “I think my big bump is going to come from the 97 town halls, and delivering for every corner of the district.”

“What is Washington state without salmon?“ said Murray in her brief speech Thursday. “We need to continue making salmon recovery a priority on every level of government. It’s got to an all-hands effort.”

In a statement, Smiley’s campaign called Murray an “infrastructure wrecker.” “By insisting on breaching the Snake River Dams, Murray would dismantle critical infrastructure that produces clean, cheap hydropower energy for Washington consumers and provides a transportation lifeline for Washington farmers,” the statement said. Smiley’s issue sheet calls for more oil production, along with nuclear and renewable power.

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As of August, a joint statement by Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee said Snake River dam removal, meant to boost dwindling salmon runs, “is not an option right now,” while calling for more research about how to replace the electricity.

Final federal report on saving salmon calls for removing Snake River dams

Culverts are pipes or flumes where water flows under a road. Many are so small they block the path of migrating fish. A federal court in 2013 found Washington state’s culverts violate the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, and the Boldt Decision of 1974, that guaranteed the tribes permanent access to their usual and accustomed fishing grounds. Under court order, the state accelerated its pace of culvert work. Salmon species on both the west and east sides of the state are threatened or endangered.

“I think it was honest and sincere,” Elkins, the Muckleshoot tribal chair, said of Buttigieg’s commentary. The tribe also contributes to stream restoration, including work on 100,000 acres of Muckleshoot-owned forests, he said.

The Washington State Department of Transportation says it has changed 379 culverts and opened 1,301 miles of stream habitat, a program begun in 1991. Over the years, fish have returned to half the upstream areas where WSDOT removed or improved a culvert, said Kim Rydholm, fish passage delivery manager. Surface water conditions, fish harvest, downstream barriers, ocean conditions and other factors also affect return rates, she said.

Even at $1 billion, the national culvert fund is far less than Washington state’s own investment. The 2022 state Legislature, in its mammoth $17 billion Move Ahead Washington plan, set aside $2.4 billion in motor-vehicle taxes and fees toward culvert improvements by 2030. Detractors argue those dollars should pay for better roads, with the fish funds to be reduced or found elsewhere.

Culverts are just one of many habitat problems. Issaquah Creek empties into Lake Sammamish, whose waters spill north toward a slough and Lake Washington, before finally reaching Puget Sound through the Ballard Locks. Hatchery-reared Chinook still return to spawn in Issaquah Creek, despite high water temperatures that kill many along the way.

Fish literally get stuck at the last mile, said Cantwell. This year, she said, a project will be finished near Meadowdale Beach, in her hometown of Edmonds, to unblock fish passage where railroad tracks along the Sound last century formed a wall between the sea and the streams.