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Fish Passage Program
Feature Story
Fish Passage program celebrates past, gears up for future
Fish Passage PictureIt’s been almost 10 years since ODOT joined with other state agencies to help conserve coastal coho salmon. The once-plentiful fish were struggling, and the National Marine Fisheries Service was about to list them as a “threatened species.” That would mean the federal government would get involved in trying to manage and save the fish.
Instead, then-governor John Kitzhaber made a plea to the agencies he managed to create and implement a plan that would save the salmon and promote healthier watersheds. The result was the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Healthy Watersheds, and it has been key to saving a unique species. Coastal coho spawn in small streams from November through March; the offspring spend the next summer and one winter in freshwater, and then they migrate through estuaries to the ocean in the spring of their second year of life. The vast majority then spend two years in the ocean, remaining principally off the Northern California and Oregon coast, before returning to their home or “natal” streams to spawn and complete the cycle.
If they can’t get to their home stream, the cycle is broken — and they can’t spawn.
Everyone responded to Kitzhaber’s call, including ODOT, and a decade later, the coastal coho population is viable. Other fish are struggling now, and that’s why ODOT’s Greg Apke, Fish Passage program manager, is always busy.
“We’ve accomplished a lot,” Apke said, “but we’ve got a long way to go.” Apke recently made a presentation to the Governor’s Council on Natural Resources showing just how much the department has accomplished. Since the Oregon Transportation Commission set aside $12 million per year from the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program beginning in 1997 for fish habitat/culvert repair, ODOT has fixed 81 sites, including 24 replacement culverts and 57 retrofits (adding weirs, baffles, etc.).
“I think I’m most proud of the nearly 400 miles of streams we’ve opened up by fixing problematic culverts,” Apke said. “It’s taken incredible teamwork, and ODOT’s Maintenance crews, Region Technical Center staff, as well as contractors across the state, have done a tremendous job.”
Now, ODOT’s fish passage program has reached its own kind of apex. In cooperation with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, ODOT was able to pinpoint and focus on the culverts that were the easiest and fastest to fix. The program was able to “pick the low-hanging fruit.” But like nearly every program or service in transportation, funding is becoming an issue. The remaining 750+ ODOT culverts that impede fish passage include potentially huge projects that require more than just adding baffles or creating a larger pool on the downriver side of the drainage. Several projects require replacing culverts with bridges — upgrades that can easily cost millions per project.
“Over the life of the program, we’ve been averaging about 15 projects per year. With our funding staying flat and the cost of things going up, we’re looking at just being able to fund three to five projects a year, depending on costs,” said Apke. “What we have to do now is look at how we can work more efficiently, make smarter decisions, and find out where the most critical fish passage needs are.”
One way Apke and his partners at ODFW and other agencies are becoming more efficient is by taking advantage of technology.  Geographic Information System tools, for example, allow planners to better identify, scope and plan potential future fish passage projects.
“We can have these maps layering over each other and with one click of the mouse, we can see that by repairing a culvert, it would open up, say, 10 miles of prime fish habitat, or it would show us if there other blockages further upstream.”
Another helpful tool is ODOT’s streamlined permitting processes currently under development. Before, permits were issued project by project. With a new emphasis on covering more projects over a longer period, the department will save money (for more culvert projects) and time (fish get their fixed culvert faster). This kind of a strategic approach will help make the best decisions for funding and fish, but the challenges will remain.
“There are other species in peril,” Apke said. “That’s why it’s important, with our limited fish passage program funds, to focus our efforts. If fish can’t access spawning habitat where the young are born, they’re going to diminish.”

Fish Passage Program Facts
  • ODFW Culvert Priority Inventory
    • 5,600 Culverts Statewide (list changes)
  • ODOT manages 30,000 to 80,000 culverts
    • 753 are known fish passage impediments
      • 249 high priority
      • 159 medium priority
      • 345 low priority
  • ODOT has fixed 81 culverts (11 percent of total)
    • 24 replacements
    • 57 retrofits (baffles, weirs, etc.)
ODOT has opened up nearly 400 total stream miles for fish habitat.