Lost in Translation: Insights from WSDOT in Communication in Fish Passage Projects

Year: 2022
Presenter/s: Piper Petit
Symposium Session: 2022 - 04 Stream Restoration from the (WSDOT) Transportation Perspective
Topics covered: community involvement, fish passage, instream structure (culvert/bridge/dam), and lessons learned


Fish Passage is not new to WSDOT, we have been working to retrofit and replace barriers under our highways since the early ‘90’s, using the best available science of the day. However, our pace has quickened significantly since 2013, when the Federal Injunction set the goal of opening 90% of the habitat for 850 listed barriers in Western Washington by 2030, and the science around fish passage & stream restoration has evolved. In our undertaking of this immense task, we have come to know many challenges in designing & constructing these complex projects, but none is more paramount to successfully fulfill our commitments to our partnering agencies and co-managers than good communication.

The differences in the technical backgrounds & perspectives of those informing the project’s restoration components, compared to the engineering team members preparing the plans, and then those overseeing & performing construction activities can act as a language barrier and are often the root of our issues. Simply put, Scientists, Engineers, & Contractors do not speak the same language and sometimes have divergent priorities that can unintentionally cause us to fall short of meeting our restoration goals, resulting in failures to follow through with commitments that were made in good faith.

This presentation will review how Science, Engineering, and Construction roles play into stream restoration projects and some of the inherent process-driven challenges to keeping those projects moving smoothly. Using the selection and implementation of streambed material mix designs, channel cross-sectional shapes, and habitat features as examples, we can demonstrate the differences in the distinct perspectives and priorities of each contributing group. With these differences understood, it is easy to recognize ways communication can be tailored to each specific group to improve collaborative problem solving based on a common understanding of design intent.

The need for effective communication amplifies significantly when we are faced with finding solutions on projects that do not fit within the guidelines of our established standards. One such project on the Olympic Peninsula, US 101 Lees Creek, has presented a number of challenges to the design team. This crossing is in a severely degrading system, with high potential for significant scour and long-term degradation through the very weak bedrock (on the order of 20+ feet). Good communication and collaboration between WSDOT and our project partners have been the key to finding a solution that is best suited to the natural system, yet still constructable and resilient. We hope that by sharing our observations of common communication barriers, we can help others coordinating stream restoration projects be more successful in meeting restoration goals and fostering trust with project partners.