Improving Fish Passage

Multi-disciplinary culvert replacement and stream design services for departments of transportation and local municipalities.

Fishing is an important industry in Washington State, both now and historically. The state economy relies on fishing and aquaculture for more than $9 billion in revenue each year, making it one of the most productive fishing industries in the country. However, a combination of infrastructure and environmental factors are harming this critical natural and economic resource. Dams, culverts, bridges and other man-made infrastructure are blocking fish species like salmon from swimming upstream from the ocean to critical spawning and rearing habitat. The number of Chinook salmon has been steadily decreasing since 1984 (EPA) and is not expected to recover without human intervention.

For decades, Washington Tribes and environmentalists have advocated for corrections to the infrastructure and artificial channels that are preventing fish from accessing traditional spawning and rearing habitat in the state. A 2013 U.S. District Court ruling finally clarified the issue. An injunction required Washington State to accelerate efforts to improve fish passage for salmon and steelhead across a large area west of the Cascade Mountains and north of the Willapa and Columbia River drainage basins. State agencies like the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and smaller local municipalities are working hard to replace old infrastructure with fish-friendly culverts and bridges before the court-mandated 2030 deadline. GeoEngineers is helping to make it happen.

As a multi-disciplinary consulting firm with fish biologists, water resource engineers, hydrologists and geotechnical engineers, GeoEngineers has the right mix of experience and expertise to design sustainable, fish-friendly stream crossings. We begin by looking at existing conditions on either side of a stream crossing and identifying infrastructure factors that may hinder fish passage. Our team then works to integrate culverts, bridges and other crossings into a natural stream morphology that maintains consistent water velocity. Water resource engineers analyze and characterize each stream’s hydrology and hydraulics and make recommendations for grading and channel design that will provide adequate conveyance. By adding habitat features like riparian vegetation, expanded wetlands and large woody debris, our biologists and water resource engineers design sustainable river reaches that will naturally evolve and support fish reproduction over the long-term.

With more than 100 successful fish passage barrier removal projects over the last 15 years, GeoEngineers’ water resource engineers understand the many hydraulic and hydrologic factors than can affect the performance and long-term reliability of a stream crossing. Because many fish passage projects have similar parameters and requirements, GeoEngineers uses this extensive experience to jumpstart new projects. When you know what to expect it’s much easier to spot potential challenges and implement proven solutions.

Delivering fish passage projects quickly and efficiently is about more than just technical expertise, it’s also about who you know. Over the past decade GeoEngineers has performed fish passage work across Western and Central Washington—and developed relationships with important stakeholders along the way. Funding and oversight entities like the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Fish Barrier Removal Board, Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office, and United States Army Corps of Engineers can all play important roles in permitting fish passage projects in Washington. By leveraging existing relationships with these and other agencies, GeoEngineers can provide clients with an accelerated, coordinated pathway toward permitting and project approval.

GeoEngineers is also intimately familiar with the design standards and permitting requirements for fish-friendly stream crossings in Washington, in part because our staff have helped to craft and define them. While working on early fish passage barrier removal projects for WSDOT in the South Fork Nooksack River and Puyallup River basins, GeoEngineers helped set the bar for culverts and fish habitat. Many of GeoEngineers’ recommendations now appear in Washington’s Stream Habitat Restoration Guidelines and the fish passage guidelines in the 2018 Brian Abbott Fish Passage Barrier Removal Board Grant Program, which provides funding for many local fish passage improvements.

Thanks to GeoEngineers’ wealth of experience, technical expertise and industry relationships, our project teams are ready to develop creative project approaches and added value for our clients. By considering every variable carefully, and keeping our focus firmly on the client’s goals, GeoEngineers can sometimes drastically reduce project construction time and costs. For example, WSDOT initially planned an expensive cut into U.S. Route 101 to improve fish passage up Coffee Creek near Shelton, Washington. By thinking creatively, GeoEngineers’ stream design team recommended a new stream alignment, routing the creek through more than a mile of completely new channel toward a nearby creek that already flowed beneath a wide U.S. 101 bridge. This alternative technical concept saved WSDOT more than $5 million.

Our fish passage experts are ready and able to improve fish passage at stream crossing across Western Washington and beyond. We’re working with large state agencies, county governments and local municipalities to restore fish access to critical upstream habitat and revitalize this important natural and economic resource. Contact us directly to learn more.

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