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Fish, floods and whether to dam the Chehalis River

The era of dam building is over and an era of fishery protection has begun. Yet the Chehalis River Basin Flood Control Zone District (FCZD) is proposing to construct a flood retention facility—a dam—near Pe Ell, Washington. This would put the Chehalis River and its fish in peril, and likely cause the Spring Chinook in our river to go extinct.

A strategy that would do more harm than good

The Chehalis is a free-flowing river 117 miles long. It’s the longest river completely contained within the borders of our state. The historic Chehalis Basin was once a huge producer of salmon. Chehalis River Peoples continue to hunt, fish, and gather along nsúlapš (the Chehalis River) and its tributaries as their tulap n (ancestors) have for countless generations.

The number one recommendation of the Orca Task Force is to increase stocks of Chinook salmon

The Governor’s Office of the Chehalis Basin, under the Department of Ecology (DOE), is evaluating the dam as one strategy to reduce flood damage during a major flood on the Chehalis River. The proposal includes levee improvements around the Centralia-Chehalis Airport in Chehalis, Washington.

A policy of building chinook salmon runs

At the same time, a DOE task force charged with aiding the recovery of Washington’s orca whales is working on ways to increase the abundance of Chinook salmon. The number one recommendation of the Orca Task Force is to increase stocks of Chinook salmon, not cause these stocks to go extinct.

Salmon originating in the Chehalis River are part of a group included as part of our Southern Resident Killer Whale Priority Chinook Stocks. Satellite tagging data from NOAA Fisheries from 2013 to 2016 showed that Southern Resident Killer Whales (orca) spend time during the winter months off Grays Harbor estuary, likely feeding on these salmon runs.

In spite of their protected status as an endangered species, the Southern Resident orca population is the lowest it has been in more than 30 years. As this orca species feeds primarily on Chinook salmon—also in decline—approval of the dam would directly contradict the efforts of the task force.

We can protect our lives and the life of our fishery

The Chehalis River is the only basin in Washington State currently without federally listed salmon species. It is the #1 most productive salmon producer in our state. Extensive splash damming, widespread removal of log jams and wood, timber harvesting and removal of riparian vegetation have all severely depleted the amount of wood in the stream channels. The basin’s ability to support some types of fish has decreased by as much as 80 percent, with the most significant loss in the amount of spring Chinook.

We can protect life and property from floods and preserve critical salmon habitat at the same time. There are low-impact and structural alternatives to dams. Actions to restore habitat should be undertaken first. Environmental Impact Statements are being prepared—one by the Department of Ecology and one by the Corps of Engineers. These will be finalized in early 2020.

Lee First is a member of Twin Harbor Waterkeepers in Grays Harbor County. You can learn more at Twin Harbors Waterkeeper. Or visit the Quinault Nation website and the website of the Office of the Chehalis Basin.


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