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Cold Water Connection campaign reopens rivers for Olympic Peninsula Salmon and Steelhead

by NOAA Fisheries 24 Feb 20:36 UTC
Washington coast coho migration © Paul Jeffrey / Wild Salmon Center

With $19 million in NOAA funds, nonprofit and tribal partners plan to remove 17 barriers blocking fish passage on critical spawning rivers originating in Olympic National Park, Washington.

The cold water rivers of Western Washington descend from the glaciers and snow-capped mountains of Olympic National Park. They hold some of the last, best freshwater habitat for salmon and steelhead in the lower 48 states. Despite a warming climate, their high-elevation headwaters are predicted to remain cool enough for salmon and steelhead for at least the next 50 years.

However, the region's roads—some a legacy of the logging industry—crisscross the watersheds. They often force streams to flow underneath them through small, poorly designed tunnels called culverts that block fish passage. There are more than 4,000 culvert barriers on the Olympic Peninsula. Salmon and steelhead are often unable to reach the historical habitat they need to spawn and produce the next generation.

In response to declining fish populations on the Olympic Peninsula, NOAA’s Office of Habitat Conservation is supporting the Cold Water Connection Campaign. This partnership will reopen 125 miles of critical spawning and rearing habitat over the next 10 years. With $19 million in funds through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, project partners plan to:

  • Remove 12 high-priority barriers in the Hoh, Quillayute, and Quinault watersheds
  • Finalize designs for 5 additional culvert replacements
  • Expand the ability of tribes to perform restoration work
  • Inject money into the regional economy by hiring local and tribally owned contracting companies
  • Mitigate flood damage risks by installing culverts built to handle high flows from the region's increasingly heavy rain storms
"We are running out of time to recover and protect these salmon and steelhead populations," says Luke Kelly, Western Washington Program Director for Trout Unlimited. "We need to pull out all the stops now, so it's been great to see all of our government, tribal, nonprofit partners, and private landowners coming together to get this done."

Cold Water Connection Campaign partners include:

The campaign has support from local, state, and federal agencies including NOAA. In past years (PDF, 8 pages) project partners have also repaired instream and riparian habitat damaged by road building and destructive logging practices.

Declining Populations

While most of the salmon and steelhead populations on the Olympic Peninsula are not listed under the Endangered Species Act, they are in trouble. "To use an example of the sockeye salmon in the Quinault River watershed, at its peak in the 1940s we had 1.1 million salmon return," says Lauren Macfarland, Environmental Protection Manager for the Quinault Indian Nation. "Now we're seeing on average about 35,000 returns."

Tribes on the western Olympic Peninsula have responded to declining populations by reducing harvests up to 40 percent or closing fisheries all together. In November 2023, Olympic National Park closed its popular steelhead sport fishing rivers due to declining numbers of wild steelhead.

Western Washington tribes foresaw the problems posed by fish barriers in the early 2000s. They successfully sued the state government, which must repair more than 1,000 culverts on state-owned roads by 2030. In 2017, Cold Water Connection Campaign partners began compiling a database of culverts on non-state-owned roads and identifying high priority barriers to remove.

With NOAA funds, Trout Unlimited kicked off construction work this past summer at Wisen Creek. Crews removed three significantly undersized culverts and replaced each with a 12-foot-plus structure. They will allow adult salmon and steelhead to reach critical spawning grounds and cool water rearing habitat for their offspring. Work on other campaign sites will start later this year. The partners are applying for additional funds to remove a total of 50 barriers by 2030.

The Impact of Culverts on Migratory Fish

Most salmon and steelhead follow the path home charted in their DNA through generations of evolution. They swim hundreds of miles from the ocean to the same streams where they and their ancestors were born. Some may stray from their home streams to spawn elsewhere, but most do not. If the fish cannot get through a culvert due to low water levels or a blockage, they may die trying.

Juvenile fish are at risk, too. During warm weather, young fish that spend a year or more in freshwater before heading out to sea, search for colder water. If they cannot escape higher temperatures, their body systems shut down.

A few blocked streams may not make much of a difference in overall populations, but the compounding effects of many barriers can. "You can think of the streams salmon use as being like the veins on the leaf of a plant," says Kelly. "When you start pinching off those veins, the leaf will die. If you continue pinching veins and killing leaves, the whole plant will die."

Supporting Tribal River Restoration

A portion of the NOAA funds will support tribes so they can train and hire more restoration staff and advance shared restoration priorities. Salmon have been the lifeblood of local tribes for thousands of years. Restoring salmon habitat is essential for ensuring the tribes' access to a nutritious food source and carrying on ancient cultural practices.

"There's so much restoration work the Quinault Indian Nation is trying to do and we can't keep up with all of the technical needs," says Macfarland. "With these new funds we're going to hire engineering consultants to help us review large-scale fish passage designs and hopefully implement projects."

"For millennia, the indigenous communities managed salmon fisheries in a way that allowed both fish and people to thrive," says Jessica Helsley, Government Affairs Director at Wild Salmon Center. "In recognition of the incredible work the tribes have already done, we want to ensure the barriers we remove also address their needs."

Restoration Work Fuels Local Economy

Rural and geographically isolated from the rest of the state, the communities of the western Olympic Peninsula experience high rates of unemployment. In the past, many jobs were connected to logging, but the timber industry is shrinking. To help support the coastal economy, the Wild Salmon Center and Trout Unlimited are hiring local construction crews and other businesses to work on the barrier projects. Research by the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office found that every $1 million invested in watershed restoration directly results in 15 to 33 new or sustained jobs.

"When fish habitat restoration projects started showing up we jumped on that market," says Joel Bruch of Bruch and Bruch Construction, which completed the work at Wisen Creek. "We enjoy this work and it suits our company well. We try to get every contract we can. I think it's fantastic that there is potential to increase habitat for salmon and migratory trout."

Replacing Old Culverts Reduces Future Flooding

To prevent road washouts and maintain public access to emergency services, schools, businesses, and recreational opportunities, project partners have designed replacement culverts to withstand catastrophic flooding.

"Many of these culverts were placed 50 or 60 years ago without thought put into hydrology and fluctuating river flows," says Kelly. "This area is a rainforest and we can see river flows increase 5,000 percent or more in just 24 hours. Flows like that going through an undersized culvert can cause entire road segments to wash into the stream."

Due to climate change, the region is experiencing heavier rainstorms. Flooding is also expected to increase as more snowfall turns to rain in the winter. In November 2021, an atmospheric river dumped 10 inches of rain in 24 hours on Olympic National Forest. Numerous culverts failed, completely washing out roads and cutting off access to certain areas.

The future health of the salmon and steelhead populations on the Olympic Peninsula remains unclear. Marine heat waves, habitat damage, reduced forest cover, and other threats impact the ability of these species to recover. NOAA Fisheries is conducting status reviews of Olympic Peninsula steelhead and spring-run Chinook to determine whether listing the fish as endangered is warranted.

In the meantime, restoring rivers and removing barriers helps adult salmon and steelhead to successfully reproduce and gives juveniles a better chance of survival. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, NOAA is investing nearly $90 million in restoration projects benefiting salmon and steelhead in Washington State.

"Working in habitat restoration, there are days where the task ahead seems too daunting to proceed," says Helsley. "And yet salmon and steelhead are still migrating hundreds of miles and gaining thousands of feet in elevation to get to within meters of where they were born. Clearing a path so that they can do what they're born to do brings incredible joy and the motivation to keep working."

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