What we know now...and didn’t know then – an evolution of environmental awareness

 By guest blogger Ann Briggs

Kelsey Creek, I-405 wetland, 2008
Recent talk about budgets and the effect environmental regulations have on transportation costs have people asking why we spend money on environmental studies, wetlands and things of that sort.

It has me thinking about my own views on the environment and how they have evolved. As a child of the 60s, I remember riding in my parents' car, tossing candy wrappers out the window (sigh!) and my dad dumping the car ashtray on the ground, scattering butts everywhere. We just didn’t give much thought back then about where this stuff ends up…as if it would simply disappear into the wind. We certainly know better now.

Thanks to better science and practices, an environmental awareness and evolution has taken place over the years in the world of transportation too. Much of what we do today to protect the environment and mitigate for the impacts of highway construction is based on lessons learned and a greater understanding of the effects the transportation system has on our surroundings. A significant amount of money is spent fixing the problems that were created in decades past.
Gold Creek side channel I-90, 2009

Environmental missteps, like those tossed candy wrappers, can pile up if we keep repeating them. We used to build roadways with drainage systems that funneled highway runoff directly into lakes and streams. Wetlands were soggy ponds that got in the way of progress, so we drained them. We built culverts to let the water through, but didn’t think about how fish would manage. We built highways in places that made good engineering sense, but not necessarily good community sense.

We now build highways with stormwater management systems to filter out oil and fluids from drippy cars before it enters our streams. We know now that wetlands are critical for reducing flooding, recharging groundwater supplies and providing habitat. Between 1988 and now, we’ve built and monitored 194 wetlands covering 942 acres. Since 1991, we’ve been replacing culverts that block fish and have restored fish passage to more than 900 miles of habitat. We conduct environmental studies to determine how our work will affect communities, cultures, habitats, air, water and noise, and find ways to avoid or mitigate for those impacts. And, we work hard to report the results of those studies in easy-to-read-and-understand formats.

SR 167 Panther Creek fish passage
culvert installation, 2012
While it’s true that none of this work comes cheap, we have to ask ourselves, “Can we really afford the ultimate price of not doing it?” I think not. We’ve made good strides in environmental stewardship, but we’re far from done and we’ll continue to work to create a transportation system that is compatible with communities and nature. We all have a responsibility to future generations to take care of the things that make the Pacific Northwest such a rich and vibrant place to live. It’s the right thing to do.

As we celebrate Earth Day on April 22, think about what you know now that you didn’t know then. What changes have you made as a result of your own environmental evolution?