Federal infrastructure grants will remove, replace and restore culverts in multiple Alaska communities

Alaska will receive a large share of a total of nearly $200 million in designated funding
Published: Aug. 21, 2023 at 12:16 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A U.S. Department of Transportation program is set to fund nearly $45 million in project support across multiple Alaska communities as they look to strengthen fish habitats.

Along with Alaska, the Biden Administration announced this past week that money from the National Culvert Removal, Replacement, and Restoration Grant Program, through the Culvert Aquatic Organism Passage Program, will go to various regions across the country, primarily to Pacific communities, but to others as well, including on the East Coast.

“We’re announcing the first $200 million of funding, from that new program, to improve or even remove or fix or upgrade culverts (nationwide) that are currently in a degraded condition,” U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said. “A number of those grants are coming right here to Alaska, and we know that’s going to make a big difference.”

Culverts are drains or waterway crossings under roads, railroads and other infrastructure that carry water but can be deadly to fish and other animals that can get stuck trying to pass through. They are also one of the factors being blamed for declining populations of salmon in some areas.

Through the grants, the U.S. Department of Transportation is honing in on culverts to fix and remove 169 culvert barriers and help improve fish passage.

“Not just for the fish, but for the people who count on the health of those fish stocks,” Buttigieg said, “and the ability of that fish passage to take place, for their ways of life and their livelihoods.”

Cherie Northon, of the Anchorage Waterways Council, explained that while culverts are meant to be a help, they can easily become a hindrance.

“It either has to be by a bridge or a culvert,” Northon said, of water passing through already-existent infrastructure. “And if they’ve done these 50, 60, 70 years ago, they’re usually too small, they’re under-powered for the capacity, and also, the metal fatigues, it rusts, and besides blockages, and being too small, it can actually fall apart or actually be crushed down or fill up with debris.”

Wild Salmon Center Director of Government Affairs Jessica Helsley told the Associated Press that the efforts to improve fish crossings – including advocating for the removal of culverts – will be much stronger with the federal government as a supporter.

“It creates a new unique dialogue that otherwise might have been a little slower to develop,” Helsley said. “It used to be you’d go talk to an infrastructure department and say, ‘I’m here to talk fish,’ and you’d get ignored. Well, now, thanks to Congress, you can say, ‘I’m here to talk fish, and I have money to work with.’”

The program will support projects in the Metlakatla Indian Community, Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Klawock, King Salmon, Valdez, Cordova, Yakutat City and Borough, and Houston, and is meant to help with the replacement, removal and repair of culverts so that there are better passage options for fish born in freshwater streams and rivers to migrate back to freshwater for spawning.

Alaska’s congressional delegation reacted to the funding announcement in full support.

“The infrastructure law is allowing Alaska communities to repair and replace failing and aging infrastructure,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, touting the massive bipartisan spending package. “Projects from Metlakatla to King Salmon will not only build more resilient culverts to address future flooding events, but also support critical salmon and fish populations so many communities in Alaska rely on.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, shared similar sentiments and added that he appreciated the recognition of Alaska’s request for funding.

“These projects will not only support Alaska salmon,” he said, “but will also help continue to provide a much-needed food source for Alaskans.”

Alaska’s lone congresswoman, Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, said the money will help tremendously.

“Protecting our fish doesn’t just happen in the ocean – how we build our roads and other infrastructure on land matters, too,” Peltola said. “This funding, nearly $45 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will help improve our infrastructure and restore crucial habitats across several regions to help a variety of fish species complete their life cycles and find their way home.

“Additionally,” she continued, “these projects will help reduce flood risks, provide jobs and protect the lives and livelihoods of Alaskans who rely on fish every day. This is one more example of bipartisan, pro-fish policy working for Alaska.”

You can view the full list of funded projects by clicking here.