State will test fish-passage mitigation bank

State will test fish-passage mitigation bank
By Mark Freeman
Mail Tribune

August 7, 2015

State fish managers will test-drive a new, big-picture approach to fixing fish-passage barriers by bypassing otherwise required work on some bridges and culverts in favor of larger barriers that will generate greater benefits for wild salmon and open more usable habitat for them.

Despite warnings that doing so might lead to ceding small pieces of important wild salmon habitat, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Department of Transportation will launch a three-year pilot project to see whether this so-called “mitigation banking” holds water and creates a bigger bang for the bucks spent on removing barriers during road projects.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission on Friday approved the pilot program during its meeting in Salem.

Under the program, ODOT will get waivers from state requirements to fix or replace culverts and bridges to meet current fish-passage requirements during up to a dozen road-construction projects, provided the blocked area contains less than a half-mile of usable habitat.

The money that ODOT would have spent on that work instead would be “banked” toward bigger projects, such as those in the agency’s Top 10 list of fish-passage barriers, theoretically opening up more habitat for more wild salmon species than the combined smaller, waived projects.

ODFW organizers have said the pilot project will hinge on creating, testing and validating a sophisticated computer model that would grade the lost habitat in the waiver projects and quantify the gained habitat by fixing the larger, higher-priority barriers, according to the agency.

The program also calls for the big projects’ fish benefits to be at least three times that of the total possible habitat not opened in the smaller, undone projects, according to ODFW.

“There’s a large net benefit for fish,” Dave Stewart, the ODFW-ODOT fish passage liaison, told the commission. “I think we’ve shown this is a benefit on all ends.”

Before voting in favor of the project, commission member Bob Webber, a lawyer formerly of Medford who now lives in Port Orford, said he is not a fan of fish-passage waivers, “but on the other hand, reality says you have to do something.”

Plans are to launch the pilot project in the northern Oregon Coast area, each of the smaller waiver projects blocking no more than a half-mile of usable habitat.

Those streams in question likely would have steeper gradients and be used by wild steelhead and cutthroat trout rather than salmon, according to ODFW’s analysis of the pilot project.

The planned mitigation site would be an ODFW diversion on the East Fork of the South Fork of the Trask River, where water is diverted to fish-rearing ponds, according to the ODFW analysis. That analysis shows that improving passage at that diversion would open more than 20 miles of habitat to wild coho, chinook, steelhead and cutthroat trout.

Removing that barrier is the highest fish-passage priority in the north coast area, according to ODFW.

If the pilot project proves successful, the plan is to expand it statewide.

Environmental groups such as WaterWatch of Oregon, the Native Fish Society and Oregon Wild are looking warily at the pilot project. They fear that agencies such as ODFW are writing off habitat in small streams in favor of larger, more visible projects instead of pushing for removing obstructions in all wild salmon streams.