June 26, 2008

Avoiding fish-related construction delays

  • Contractors and developers can save time and money by identifying permitting needs, work windows, and fish monitoring and removal requirements.
    Taylor Associates


    The health of Puget Sound salmonids remains a hot topic in the region. Given the continuing increase in Central Puget Sound’s human population alongside unstable salmon runs, the need to protect salmon is here to stay.

    Many Puget Sound salmonid species are listed as threatened or endangered. As a result, there has been a collective effort to minimize any potential construction impacts to juvenile and adult salmonids, as well as to their habitats. Any in-water or near-water construction projects are under intense permitting and regulatory scrutiny, effectively increasing total project costs as efforts are made to protect salmonids.

    Although this process is necessary to ensure minimal construction impacts, regulatory compliance and other fish-related issues can severely delay actual start dates for construction.

    Photo courtesy of Taylor Associates
    Fish were removed from a section of Willows Creek in Redmond as part of a daylighting project.

    Fish-related construction delays can be avoided by using a well-thought-out plan of attack. By identifying permitting needs, work windows, and fish monitoring and removal requirements, projects benefit from saved time and money.

    What is the project scale?

    Construction projects that often have fish-related issues include bridge replacements, dock improvements, culvert replacements, channel daylightings, stream route changes and habitat restorations.

    While it may appear that these issues only impact large-scale construction projects, smaller-scale projects and beneficial habitat restoration projects also need to go through a permitting process and address other fish-related issues. Regardless of the type of construction needed, delays can mount if permitting and fish-related issues are not addressed up-front.

    What type of a permit?

    Permitting and regulatory compliance can be a very confusing and time-consuming effort. Does the project need a biological assessment, environmental impact statement, hydraulic project approval, or just a joint aquatic resource permit application? Does it need formal or informal consultation with NOAA?

    The type of permitting required is determined by where the project is located, what type of water body it will impact, what fish and endangered species are present in the impact area, and the size and type of project. These questions identify the various pieces of information that need to be gathered in order to properly address impacts, and therefore decrease any turnaround time of obtaining the proper permitting.

    For every project, it is important to determine whether it is covered by federal, state or local entities by first obtaining the aforementioned information. In some cases, all three entities will be involved. The nature of the project will determine which governmental agencies or local jurisdictions need to be contacted and what type of permitting is required.

    What about work windows?

    Another fish-related construction delay is the allowable work windows for construction. Allowable work windows (also known as construction timing windows) are addressed in the permitting process, and outline blocks of time when construction can occur.

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has developed and approved work windows to avoid, or greatly minimize, effects from construction on federally listed or proposed fish species and their prey. In cases where multiple fish species are present, the work windows must be combined to cover all common dates.

    Do you know your fish?

    It is important to obtain a thorough understanding of what species of fish are present in the impact area to determine which work windows to follow. This information must be accurately determined and incorporated into permitting documents in order to avoid any delay in receiving construction permits.

    Determining an incorrect work window can prolong the permitting process to the point that the work window closes, severely delaying construction until the window re-opens. Although work windows pose a major constraint on the timing in which construction can occur, an accurate determination will help keep construction on schedule.

    In some cases, federal agencies will approve in-water construction outside of the work window. These cases usually occur when construction is already under way and delays have caused the completion date to overrun the approved work window. When this occurs, federal agencies will reinitiate consultation with new permitting requirements, which are applied during construction outside the work window. Depending upon the location and size of the project and what fish species are present, agencies may require that fish monitoring take place during construction that occurs outside the work window.

    Monitor or remove fish?

    Fish monitoring is necessary to evaluate the presence of listed species and potential impacts that construction may have on them. Early in the project, it is difficult to ascertain whether or not a project will be completed on time. However, once it is determined that this is the case, it is necessary to act quickly to reinitiate consultation with the appropriate agencies, determine who will conduct the fish monitoring, and have a fish-monitoring plan in place.

    Delays of this sort can be avoided by establishing contingency plans prior to any knowledge of construction delays. Knowing all your contacts at the agencies, establishing a fish monitoring plan, and having a contract in place with the fish monitoring crew (if not done internally) will dramatically help avoid any further delays in construction.

    Other projects such as channel daylighting, culvert replacement and rerouting streams will undoubtedly pose fish-related issues. Other than obtaining all of the necessary construction permits, the most common issue includes fish removal. Again, it is very important to know exactly what types of fish species are present in the project area and whether or not they are listed under the Endangered Species Act. This information will be included into the construction permits, and will determine what type of permitting is necessary for removal.

    In most cases, a consultant will be hired to remove or relocate fish from the project area, and they should already have the proper scientific collection permit in hand. Without having a fully permitted consultant and contract in place, construction delays can mount. These delays can be avoided with good communication with the consultant regarding the time-frame and dates that construction will occur to ensure that fish removal is completed before construction begins.

    As the population grows, so will the number of construction projects. This is a natural process that will inevitably help the economic development of the area. However, with an ever-tightening economy, every dollar counts. Knowing your in-house expertise, as well as having a list of knowledgeable consultants at your fingertips, can reduce turnaround time, get construction going and save money.

    Peter Heltzel, the senior fisheries scientist at Taylor Associates, has 13 years of professional experience in fisheries biology. He is working on a biological study at a subtidal mitigation site located at Terminal 91 for the Port of Seattle.

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