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State And Feds Battle In Supreme Court Over How To Fix Culverts

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in what many observers are calling a historic showdown that will determine who has to pay to fix our "roads" for salmon – and how quickly.


The case is about culverts, the big pipes that channel water flowing beneath roads and bridges. The issue is hundreds of them block salmon from swimming upstream to spawn.

Washington tribes have treaty rights to those fish. So 21 of them have joined forces with the federal government to force the state of Washington to replace the worst culverts by 2030 at a cost of almost $2 billion.

The stateis appealing the latest ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Solicitor General Noah Purcell represents Washington in the case. He says there is no question about the state's commitment to struggling fish runs.

“The state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last 50 years to restore salmon runs and try to preserve salmon. But now you have sort of, the courts coming in and saying but you have to do this. You have to do this part of it,” Purcell said.  

Washington is arguing it makes more sense to replace the culverts on a timeline that factors in when other road repairs are taking place. It also says that in some places, other barriers such as dams are the real problem.

In the courtroom Wednesday, attorneys for the U.S. government and tribes countered saying not all dams hinder fish passage, and there are many have fish ladders and hatcheries to make up for any damage.

They argued the ruling from the Ninth Circuit should stay in place because treaty rights at the heart of this case cannot be disregarded based on an agency’s or local government’s perceived public interest.

Observers in the courtroom Wednesday said it seems unlikely the justices will overturn the lower court’s ruling. The panel consisted of Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan.

A ruling in the culvert case is expected sometime around the end of June or early July. A transcript of the oral arguments is available on the Supreme Court website.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to