Big Tribal Victory in Culvert Case, Big Implications for Taxpayers

Posted on June 13, 2018 by Rick Glick

On June 11, the Supreme Court issued a one-sentence order affirming the Ninth Circuit’s 2016 judgment in United States v. State of Washington. In that case, the government sued Washington on behalf of several Indian tribes, asserting that culverts constructed by the state over decades blocked salmon runs for which the tribes held treaty fishing rights. The Court of Appeals ordered Washington to repair or replace the offending culverts. The Supreme Court split 4-4, with Justice Kennedy recusing himself, which allows the Ninth Circuit ruling to stand.

The ruling is a major victory for Indian treaty rights. The historical tradeoff for acceding to white settlement throughout the West was preservation of hunting and fishing rights dating from time immemorial. These rights were to ensure tribal sustenance and to preserve religious and cultural practices. The Court of Appeals held that inherent in fishing rights is a duty to maintain viable salmon habitat and migration corridors.

The justice for the tribes in the outcome cannot be denied. However, compliance with the ruling carries an enormous price tag, in the many billions of dollars. Further, culverts aren’t the only sources of degradation of salmon habitat. Settlement of the West entailed construction of hundreds of dams and other stream obstructions. More than a century of agriculture, mining and industrial activities have denuded riparian zones, straightened meandering streams, filled spawning gravels with sediments, and added nutrients and other pollutants to waterways. Most, if not all, streams listed by Western states as water quality impaired under Clean Water Act section 303(d), are on the list for temperature, suspended solids, dissolved oxygen and other pollutants related to development.

A great deal of litigation and regulatory activity is ongoing to address these concerns, but does the U.S. v. Washington case add the potential for accelerated court mandated corrections? How will state and local government budgets cope with aggressive timelines for compliance? Will the Administration and Congress step up to help?

The latter question raises justice issues of its own. Washington argued that the culverts it installed were in accordance with federal designs. In a statement, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said, "It is unfortunate that Washington state taxpayers will be shouldering all the responsibility for the federal government's faulty culvert design."

Interestingly, other Washington State officials do not appear to share AG Ferguson’s sense of outrage. As reported in the New York Times, Gov. Jay Inslee and Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz did not support petitioning the Supreme Court for review: "For some time now I've hoped that instead of litigation we could focus together on our ongoing work to restore salmon habitat," Inslee said. Franz added, "It is time to stop fighting over who should do what." And indeed, the state has been actively working on the culverts.

The courts were not moved by Ferguson’s argument that the federal government is to blame for bad culvert design. Still, it does seem that the issue of salmon habitat restoration is not for Washington State to resolve by itself, but is a national problem resulting in significant part from national policies, and thus requires a national solution.



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