On the Olympic Peninsula, reworking a highway to restore a river

A plan to elevate a segment of Highway 101 over the Duckabush River aims to improve salmon habitat and could be a model for future projects

By: - May 9, 2023 5:01 am
A small arch bridge on U.S. Highway 101 crosses the glimmering river on a blue-sky day on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. Trees line the banks of the river and dead tree trunks can be seen in the water.

The Highway 101 bridge over the main channel of the Duckabush River. The surrounding road infrastructure blocks the river’s natural path. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

BRINNON, Wash. – On a sunny day in late April, the Duckabush River glistened as it neared the end of its journey from its Olympic Mountain headwaters to the breezy tide flats on the edge of Hood Canal, the jagged fjord that extends from the western flank of Puget Sound.

Flowing clear overtop of the cobbly stones in the shallows, steel blue in deeper parts, the current moved swiftly, fed by warm weather snow melt on peaks up the river valley, some of which could be glimpsed on the horizon. Between 50 and 100 feet wide in places, the river was not roaring but was moving fast enough to maybe give you pause before wading in.

The Duckabush is not dammed and is otherwise relatively undeveloped compared to other large rivers that empty into Puget Sound. A National Forest bridge crosses it about six miles from its end and its banks are reinforced in a few places. But at a glance, the river appears to be mostly wild, especially as you venture further upstream. 

There’s one big obstacle, however, that keeps the river from running free. Just before it pours into Hood Canal’s salty waters, it is muzzled by a public works project built nearly a century ago that remains vital for travelers today. Here, Highway 101, the main road up the inside of the Olympic Peninsula, crosses the river’s mouth and barricades its natural path.

A low-slung bridge built in 1934, with bulky concrete arches, stretches 168 feet across the river’s main stem, providing passage for motorists zipping north and south. Beyond the span, the road sits atop a man-made plateau of earth, steep embankments drop away a dozen feet or so on both sides. Another smaller bridge crosses the river’s nearby north channel.

Cars rush past, an occasional logging truck rumbles by, as the berms and other surrounding infrastructure maintain their decades-long blockade of the Duckabush, leaving only two sizable openings, beneath the pair of bridges, where water can funnel into the Sound. 

Because the tentacle-like river flows that would naturally curl through here are blocked, the health of the estuary suffers. And as a result, survival is more difficult for threatened summer chum salmon and other wildlife that depend on these waters and the surrounding mucky ground, grassy vegetation and woody debris to travel, eat and rest.

“Rivers over time move, they’re like snakes; this river can’t do that,” said Theresa Mitchell, an environmental planner with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

‘Perfect restoration project’

In the years ahead, though, the situation at the mouth of the Duckabush is on track to change dramatically. That’s because of a project that Mitchell and others are working on. Expected to cost over $100 million, the project is notable for how it combines significant reengineering of a major road with the restoration of an important river.

The plan calls for a stretch of Highway 101 that crosses the river to be rebuilt, with roughly 1,600 feet of it elevated above the water on support piers spaced apart to allow water through. Historic channels would also be excavated in some places outside of the road’s footprint. 

Duckabush Estuary Restoration Project

The current road would remain open until the new segment is built. After that, the existing roadbed and bridges would be demolished. 

If all goes as planned, veins of the river that now dead-end at the roadside would flow once again under the raised highway, a win for wildlife habitat.

“There are historic channels that are completely blocked by the causeway fill material,” explained Mendy Harlow, executive director of the nonprofit Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group. “Those channels used to be a pathway for juvenile salmon as well as adults.” 

“It’s basically a chokepoint,” she said.

One of the main channels of the Duckabush that the highway blocks. It would be reconnected with the river as part of the project to elevate the highway. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

Difficulties like those at the mouth of the Duckabush are not unique.

“Estuary habitat is disappearing across the United States,” Harlow said.

Even on the Olympic Peninsula, Highway 101 cuts across each major river that flows into the west side of Hood Canal. Some supporters say the Duckabush overhaul could offer a template for revamping other infrastructure that impedes Washington’s rivers. But they also note aspects of the restoration that make it uniquely feasible – especially that much of the land needed is in the hands of the state, not private owners.

Still, as debate stirs about whether to tear down major dams on the Snake River to improve fish habitat and as the state plans to spend $2.4 billion in transportation funds in the coming years to replace salmon-blocking drainage culverts under roads, the Duckabush project presents another pathway for how infrastructure might be reworked so that it infringes less on the natural environment and gives salmon a better shot at thriving.

Juvenile fish swim near the banks of the Duckabush River, within sight of Highway 101. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

David Montgomery, a professor at the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, wasn’t familiar with the Duckabush project, but he previously worked on a study looking at the history of Puget Sound rivers. It examined maps from the 1800s showing river valleys on the Sound and compared that information to what those areas look like in modern times. 

“We’ve lost like 90% of the potential salmon habitat from those big lowland river valleys,” he said, describing the findings. “It’s no coincidence that we’ve lost 90% of the salmon around Puget Sound as well.”

“The human effects on river systems have been really extensive,” he added.

Reversing those effects, even in part, is not cheap or simple. 

The Duckabush project is years in the making, years from completion, involves multiple agencies and millions of dollars. Fish and Wildlife, the state Transportation Department, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, are among those working together on the project, which will be paid for with a mix of state and federal money.

The idea for the project traces back to the mid-1990s and salmon recovery plans and other analyses of Puget Sound developed around that time. A water projects law Congress passed in 2016 provided a key federal greenlight. And, since then, federal spending measures have included funding for it. The project entered into the design phase in 2019.

“When it’s finished, it’ll be a real asset to the whole Hood Canal ecosystem,” said state Sen. Christine Rolfes, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and is one of the lawmakers who has helped to secure state funding. 

“The water, and the watershed itself, is coming out of Olympic National Park. So that’s as clean as it gets. It’s not urbanized,” she added. “It’s just a perfect restoration project.”

The most recent formal cost estimate for the Duckabush project that the Army Corps has is from 2016 and is about $90.5 million. Juliana Houghton, a project manager with the Corps’ Civil Works Branch, in Seattle, said in an email that officials now anticipate the cost will rise to over $100 million due to inflation with materials like steel and concrete and design changes.

The plan is for the feds to pay for 65% of the project and the state the rest. 

There’s $14 million in state funding for the project in the capital budget lawmakers approved during this year’s legislative session. Last year, they plugged $25 million for the Duckabush into the state operating budget. Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency overseeing restoration efforts on the Sound, has also awarded the project about $19 million in grants through its Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration fund (money that will count toward the state’s funding share).

Rolfes said “it took a little explaining” when it came to getting other lawmakers onboard with providing the operating budget funding. She said the project didn’t fit neatly under accounts dedicated specifically to salmon or roadwork. “But in the end,” she said, “it was the number one priority for a lot of different environmental groups.”

A logging truck crosses the Duckabush River, heading south on Highway 101. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

Harlow acknowledged that some see the project as expensive and said it has at times been a “bit of a hard sell” to the salmon recovery world because so much of it is roadwork. But, looking ahead, she said her goal is to restore all nine major estuaries throughout Hood Canal and that “a big part of that” involves removing or revamping state and county road infrastructure.

Not just for the fish

Apart from helping to restore the estuary, the new section of highway will provide safety upgrades, meeting modern standards for earthquake protection and road width. Crumbling concrete on the sides of the existing bridge over the main channel is a reminder of the structure’s age. There’s no easy detour for traffic if the bridge were to fail in a flood or earthquake.

Eroded concrete and exposed rebar show the age of the bridge over the main stem of the river. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

“It’s a multiple benefits project. It’s not just for salmon,” said Harlow. She and others also say that the elevated highway will provide safer passage for elk in the area who now cross Highway 101 to graze on salty plants on the Hood Canal side of the road. Bird habitat should improve as well, Harlow said, specifically for saltwater-loving shorebirds, herons and waterfowl like mergansers and teals.

Backers also say that because water will have more places to go at the river’s outlet with the new road design, flooding upstream will be less likely. 

Flooding has been a problem in the past for property owners near the estuary, including when floodwaters swamped the area in 2014 and 2015 amid heavy rains and high tides.

“It looked like we had a lake,” said Joanne Bradshaw, whose family has owned a house along the river for 55 years that they now use as a vacation property.

Bradshaw said her home has never been severely damaged because it’s on slightly higher ground than some of the surrounding houses. While she has some questions about what access to her property will be like once the project gets underway, she’s generally supportive.

“I’m looking forward to them doing it for the simple fact that it’s going to take some of the flooding out of here,” she said.

During the environmental reviews in recent years, local tribes raised concerns about how the project could affect access to shellfish beds and whether areas where they harvest oysters and clams might be harmed due to the construction. 

Fish and Wildlife officials say their analyses show that shellfish beds will not be wiped out by the project and that any effects should be short-term. Advocates for the project also say that the health of shellfish in the area could improve if the project is completed and they highlight new parking areas in the plans and the possibility of walking under Highway 101, as opposed to crossing the busy road, that should make access easier and safer.

The Point No Point Treaty Council, which provides fisheries support services to the Jamestown S’Klallam and the Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes, was among those that raised shellfish concerns in 2020 comments. But the group also said it was “largely supportive” of the project. An attempt to reach the Council for comment last week was unsuccessful.

Tideflats at the mouth of the Duckabush and peaks in the distance, up the river valley. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

Houghton, with the Army Corps, confirmed in her email that a rough timeline for construction would be three to four years to build the new segment of highway and another year or so to remove the existing road infrastructure and complete estuary restoration work.

The state Department of Transportation expects to complete the design of the highway segment at the center of the project around September, according to spokesperson Cara Mitchell. Given the complexity of the work and other agencies involved, it could still be a couple years beyond then, she said, before the construction bidding process begins. 

Harlow is optimistic about how the Duckabush restoration is progressing and the funding that’s now lined up. “We wholeheartedly expect this project to go to construction,” she said. “The amount of money that the state Legislature set aside for the project this year is getting us so close to where we need to be,” Harlow added. “It’s not a pie-in-the-sky idea anymore.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Bill Lucia
Bill Lucia

Bill Lucia is the Standard’s editor-in-chief. He’s covered state and local policy and politics for a decade, nationwide for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and in Seattle for Crosscut.