Fish-friendly development is cost effective for taxpayers

As Alaskans are faced with the question of whether or not to support Proposition 1 in the upcoming election, I want to share my experience working as a civil engineer in the salmon habitat restoration field. I started my career working on projects in the 1990s to retrofit the dams on the Columbia River in Washington state. We poured hundreds of millions of dollars into floating fish passage structures, drilling tunnels and trucking fish around the dams with very little result. It is now widely accepted that dams have a pretty negative impact on salmon runs.

I now live in Alaska and work on stream restoration and fish passage here. The undersized culverts on many of our existing road stream crossings act like small dams that make it difficult for adult salmon to get upstream to spawn. They are an even bigger problem for juvenile salmon that spend up to four years in fresh water before heading out to the ocean. Juvenile salmon need to move between their summer and winter homes in the small streams and lakes that make up their habitat in order to find food in the summer and avoid ice packed streams in the winter. Culverts are such a problem that the Department of Fish and Game has been assessing culverts around the state since 2001 for their ability to pass fish. On the Fish and Game website, you can see if there are undersized culverts in your neighborhood that are blocking fish passage.

Another problem for salmon in Alaska has been the destruction of vegetation in the riparian areas, or the areas along the banks of rivers and streams. This vegetation provides shade, hiding places and food for fish and helps protect against bank erosion. Many landowners who live along Alaska's rivers have also discovered that removing vegetation leads to accelerated bank erosion and are now investing in replanting these banks to protect their land with the help of state and federal tax dollars.

Habitat restoration is a slow, expensive process that is largely funded by federal and local taxpayer dollars. We have learned a lot about how to build fish friendly infrastructure during the past 30 years, and this infrastructure has also greatly reduced maintenance and flood damage costs. For these reasons, the municipality of Anchorage, the Mat-Su Borough and the Kenai Borough have passed ordinances to protect salmon habitat. In areas of the state without adequate protections, there are still undersized culverts being installed that prevent salmon from getting to their habitat and changes to riparian areas that reduce habitat quality. A recently published article in the Alaska Business Magazine has some good information on the long-term cost benefits of doing it right the first time when it comes to building roads over streams.

There are many remote areas in Alaska that are still largely untouched by the poor construction practices that have created these problems in the more populated areas. However, as more development occurs and roads and railroads are built, the salmon habitat in these areas will suffer as well. As a voter and taxpayer, one important question is what's more cost effective — using taxpayer dollars to go back and fix the problems caused by development, or asking developers to design and construct fish-friendly infrastructure in the first place? Voting yes on Proposition 1 will help ensure future development gets it right the first time.

Heather Hanson is a registered Alaska professional engineer who has lived in Chugiak since 2009.

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