WHITE RIVER — They were impaled and exhausted, weakened, or left dying in waves: pink salmon by the thousands, defeated by a nearly 80-year-old fish trap and dam on this waterway that also harmed spring chinook, the prize diet of endangered southern resident killer whales.

But no more. At the insistence of tribes and federal fisheries managers, the Army Corps of Engineers will soon complete the biggest facility of its kind in North America, to capture and transport salmon to free flowing stretches of the White River, a tributary of the Puyallup. 

Big as an aircraft carrier and made of enough concrete to pave a mile and a quarter of Interstate 5, the White River Fish Passage Facility is expected to be completed in October. The $131 million facility includes a complex of gates, chutes, a fish ladder and even a pair of gleaming stainless steel augers pretty as an art piece, custom-made by J. Nelson Enterprises metalworks in Orting. The augers will lift fish into flumes that carry them to trucks for the 12-mile ride from the fish collection facility at Buckley, where they will be released back to the river above Mud Mountain Dam near Enumclaw, to spawn.

The 400-foot high earthen, rock-filled dam was built in 1948 to ameliorate flood risk to some 400,000 homes and businesses downstream along the White and Puyallup river valleys between Buckley and Tacoma. It has no passage for adult fish, relying instead on the trap-and-haul facility downstream at Buckley.

At the old fish trap, fisheries workers had to scoop chinook they were seeking to sample and transport by hand with a net. Fish also confronted a diversion dam at the trap that was such an infamous fish killer federal fisheries managers in 2014 insisted the Corps build a new facility by 2020, to protect threatened spring chinook, steelhead and bull trout.

For all the concern about protected species in the river, especially spring chinook, it was the lowly pink salmon — also known as humpies — that forced the issue. 

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Pinks get no respect. Tipping the scales at a mere 4 pounds, they are nonetheless the overlords of the North Pacific, says scientist Greg Ruggerone of Natural Resources Consultants in Seattle. He has made a career of studying pinks, which he estimates make up more than 70% of all salmon in the North Pacific. Pinks have become so numerous they are eating seabirds and other salmon species out of house and home. Pinks may even interfere with the feeding efficiency of southern resident orcas, Ruggerone has hypothesized, when pinks show up at 50 times the number of increasingly rare chinook the orcas are trying to find. 

The starlings of the sea, pinks are voracious eaters that outgrow and out-compete every other salmon species. Mass spawners, mosh pits of spawning pinks can be so overwhelming they will even displace chinook. 

Pinks were never present in large numbers in the White until a shift in ocean conditions beginning in the 1970s helped detonate a pink boom, said Fred Goetz, biologist for the Corps Seattle District. Pinks started showing up in the White by the thousands in the early 2000s, storming the diversion dam and flooding the old fish trap. A tsunami of 1 million pinks flooded the river in 2009.

Unable to keep up, even with trapping and hauling of salmon in trucks round the clock, about a half a million pinks were not transported — and many died, Goetz said. 

Julian Close with Puyallup Tribal Fisheries transfers a netted salmon from the trap to a data-check station to determine its origin, measure its length and take a DNA sample. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Julian Close with Puyallup Tribal Fisheries transfers a netted salmon from the trap to a data-check station to determine its origin, measure its length and take a DNA sample. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

The Corps up-sized the new fish trap facility specifically to deal with the pandemonium of pinks. While the old facility was built to handle 20,000 fish per year, this one can handle three times that per day, or more than a million fish per year when the pinks are running. Pinks have a two-year life cycle and return to the White in odd numbered years.

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In addition to providing enough capacity even for a crush of pinks, the facility is sure to benefit the chinook, steelhead and bull trout that now will get the help they need in a state-of-the-art facility that incorporates an all-new fish handling and research area. 

The facility was the top priority for the Seattle District, said Corps project manager Leah Hauenstein. Raised in Parkland, Pierce County, and the granddaughter of a Corps employee, she was proud to see the facility completed on time, within budget, and without a single injury to any worker, Hauenstein said during a tour of the construction site.

“This has so many values, for Puget Sound recovery, and benefits to orcas,” said Mark Slominski, chief of the construction division for the Corps Seattle District, as workers all around him toiled toward completion.

Building the facility to handle the gnarly White has been a challenge. Surging off the glaciers of Mount Rainier, the river roils with tons of rock, sediment, boulders and ripped up trees. But it’s an excellent river for chinook, running icy cold off the glaciers, and providing cover from predators in its silt-clouded waters. 

The White River spring chinook run is a triumph of decades of work led by the Muckleshoot and Puyallup tribes to revive a fish run that had dwindled to only handfuls of fish. Since 2016, the river has seen its biggest runs in more than 70 years, with more than 16,000 spring chinook coming back at the peak.

A massive run of pink salmon swarms the old diversion dam at Buckley, WA used to divert, capture and transport fish 12 miles upstream, above the Mud Mountain Dam.  An all-new fish collection and transport facility built by the US Army Corps of Engineers replaced the 119-year old structure, and nearly 80-year old fish trap. The new facility is sized to manage more than 1 million fish a year and will be completed by October.  (Eric Warner / Muckleshoot Indian Tribe)
A massive run of pink salmon swarms the old diversion dam at Buckley, WA used to divert, capture and transport fish 12 miles upstream, above the Mud Mountain Dam. An all-new fish collection and transport facility built by the US Army Corps of Engineers replaced the 119-year old structure, and nearly 80-year old fish trap. The new facility is sized to manage more than 1 million fish a year and will be completed by October. (Eric Warner / Muckleshoot Indian Tribe)
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Eric Warner, team leader for the fisheries department at the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, remembers well watching coho, chinook, steelhead and pinks die at the old diversion dam, impaled on pieces of metal or beached and exhausted as they flung themselves at a barrier they could not pass. He also knows firsthand how stressful fish handling was at the old trap for the fish, and how dangerous it can be for workers. 

 “This will be a great improvement,” Warner said of the new facility. 

 “There are all kinds of issues that may come up, but on this one, we have made a lot of progress.”