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Fish Passage Restoration: Opportunities to Increase Impact, Transparency, and Collaboration

Published March 12, 2024

The King County Fish Passage Restoration Program (FPRP) works to remove county-owned barriers in local streams and waterways so salmon and other fish can access their spawning habitat. Despite this objective, the program’s current workplan schedules removal of some barriers with little or no habitat benefit early in its 10-year workplan. Fish barriers contribute to the decline of salmon, and this decline threatens the treaty-protected rights of tribes in Washington state. King County is removing fish barriers as part of its expressed commitment to honor tribal treaty rights to harvest salmon in usual and accustomed places and as part of its broader commitment to salmon protection. The program’s sequencing of low-impact projects before high-impact projects means the program is not in alignment with the county goal of opening the best habitat as quickly as possible and is putting more impactful projects at risk if there are funding or staffing shortages later. The FPRP also does not consider the impact of non-county-owned barriers to fish passage when reporting the number of miles of restored habitat, thereby overstating the reported impact of the program. The FPRP can increase the transparency of its work by developing a strategic plan that clarifies the program’s goals and objectives, the activities it will complete to reach those goals and objectives, and the measures it will use to track the program’s impact. Additionally, although the FPRP consulted proactively with local tribes on some program elements, it did not consult with them when developing it’s 10-year workplan and should ensure early involvement with tribal representatives when planning individual projects.

Audit Highlights

The King County Executive created the Fish Passage Restoration Program (FPRP) to remove county-owned barriers to fish passage in local streams and waterways. However, the FPRP workplan schedules barrier removal projects that would restore access to the greatest amount of habitat after some asset management projects, which restore little or no habitat. As a result, the program is out of alignment with the county goal of restoring the best habitat for fish as fast as possible. Additionally, when reporting the miles of stream opened after removing a barrier, the program does not consider the impact of non-county-owned barriers, meaning the amount of newly accessible habitat for fish may be lower than reported.

Overall, entities that work with the FPRP spoke highly of the program's staff and its projects. However, some shared that there are areas where the program could further strengthen communication and collaboration. In particular, local tribes indicated that earlier collaboration on projects and greater inclusion in program-wide decision-making, such as workplan development, could improve government-to-government relations between King County and local tribes, help expedite permitting processes, and give tribes the opportunity to support the County's grant applications.

We recommend that the FPRP develop and document a strategic plan that details its goals, objectives, and performance measures, and ensures alignment between FPRP and broader county goals for salmon habitat restoration. We also recommend that program staff review and clearly define the program strategy and adjust the workplan as needed to ensure the sequence of barrier removal projects aligns with its strategic plan and county goals. To ensure that the impact of program efforts is clear to decision-makers and the public, we recommend the FPRP measure the impact that non-county-owned barriers have on achieving program goals. We also make recommendations to increase collaboration with local tribes.

Fish passage barriers have contributed to the decline of salmon and steelhead trout populations that are now endangered or threatened. Without access to their spawning habitat, salmon and steelhead trout cannot reproduce, and their numbers will continue to decline. The decline in fish population threatens the treaty-protected rights of tribes within Washington state. In accordance with a series of treaties between the federal government and tribal governments, the Supreme Court held1 that tribes have the guaranteed right to take fish at all usual and accustomed places, and the Ninth Circuit held that fish passage barriers owned by Washington state infringe upon those rights. King County has worked to increase its efforts to remove fish barriers as part of its expressed commitment to honor tribal treaty rights to harvest salmon in usual and accustomed places and as part of its broader commitment to salmon protection.

1 Washington v. Washington State Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel Association, 443 U.S. 658 (1979)

Audit Team

Audit Team

Grant Daily, Zainab Nejati, and Cindy Drake worked on this audit. If you have any questions or would like more information, please call the King County Auditor's Office at 206-477-1033 or contact us by email at