EACH autumn thousands of salmon, including endangered Chinook species, die struggling to pass a decrepit dam on the White River. Hundreds of thousands of fish back up and overwhelm the dam’s antiquated fish trap, ultimately dying at the dam before they can reach their spawning grounds upriver.
For the past 72 years, the Army Corps of Engineers has collected migrating salmon at the dam, near the town of Buckley in Pierce County, to truck them above Mud Mountain Dam, which has no fish passage. The diversion dam and fish trap are located next to the Muckleshoot Tribe’s fish hatchery, but the dam and trap frustrate our efforts to rebuild the river’s salmon runs.
The problem is that the diversion dam, built in 1911, is falling apart, and the Corps’ 1930s-era fish trap is unsafe, undersized and lacks all of the necessary equipment for current fish-passage facilities.
While recent large runs of pink salmon in the White River have aggravated the situation, it’s the Corps’ dam and trap facilities, and not the salmon that are the problem.
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How ironic that a federally run dam and fish trap kill Endangered Species Act-listed fish. Federal agencies charged with protecting those fish have been unwilling to act, while our tribe continues working to rebuild those very same fish stocks and improve fish habitat along with other private, tribal and government entities.
Millions of dollars are spent to restore the White River and to clean up Commencement Bay. Our tribe is extending itself to try to rebuild the spring Chinook run. Meanwhile, the Buckley dam and antiquated fish trap mean these efforts are mostly wasted.
The White River spring Chinook is the last surviving spring-run salmon stock in South Puget Sound, saved from extinction in the 1980s. It is still struggling because of poor fish-passage facilities at Buckley Dam.
The White River is home to our reservation. The river was dewatered for decades by hydropower diversions and suffered many other harms. We fought long and hard for legal agreements that protect its water, salmon and our fishing culture.
The conditions at the Buckley fish trap are an affront to our efforts. It’s way past time for the Corps of Engineers to bring its fish passage up to modern standards to help recovery of salmon in the White River.
It is also time for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries and our congressional representatives to make sure that listed fish can be safely passed upstream of Mud Mountain Dam.
For the past eight years the Corps had pursued a plan to replace both the Buckley dam and its fish trap. Recently, however, the Corps abandoned the idea of a modern fish trap in favor of a dam-only replacement.
The problem with this partial fix is that salmon will still be delayed and killed unless there is a fish-trap facility that meets current standards and has the capacity to handle more fish. The Corps’ partial fix means that the Buckley Dam’s deadly fish-passage operations will continue to impede salmon-recovery efforts.
In light of the $150 million spent each year in Puget Sound to restore salmon, a modern fish-passage system for the White River is an eminently worthwhile investment.
Cost estimates for a dam upgrade vary wildly. NOAA Fisheries says it will cost $15 million to $20 million to replace the dam and the antiquated fish-transport system. The Corps of Engineers has given different estimates at different times. Most recently, it estimated the cost at $40 million to replace the dam and another $10 million for fish transport.
It’s too late to save the salmon this year, but when the Corps finally stops stonewalling and replaces these unsafe facilities, the flood-control protection provided by Mud Mountain Dam will no longer come at such a high cost to the White River salmon and to our people.
Donald Jerry is a member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe Fisheries Commission.