The Quinault Indian Nation on Thursday came out in opposition to a proposed dam on the Chehalis River, citing findings by the state Department of Ecology that the project would significantly harm salmon, including spring and fall chinook.
“Extinction is not an option,” said Tyson Johnston, vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation, and a member of an appointed board that is evaluating options both to control flooding and restore fish and other aquatic species in the Chehalis Basin.
The dam is proposed in the Upper Chehalis River near the town of Pe Ell in Lewis County.
Ecology’s findings in a draft environmental impact statement, affirmed the Nation’s concern that the dam would have unavoidable impacts on salmon because it cannot yet be determined if mitigation is either technically or economically feasible, Johnston said. “Based on evaluation of the state environmental study, the Nation believes the dam would virtually guarantee local extinction of spring chinook and accelerate the decline of coho, fall chinook, and steelhead runs.”
The public comment period on the EIS runs until May 27.
The dam was proposed by the basin flood control district, to put an end to persistent flooding in the basin that has destroyed homes and businesses, and in 2007 put I-5 under water for nearly a week. The Chehalis has flooded 18 times in the past 20 years, including four major floods since 1990, according to the city of Chehalis.
The Nation, which faces sea level rise because of climate change, is no stranger to flooding, Johnston said. But this dam is no answer. “These are unavoidable impacts that are going to occur to salmon species and other fisheries and to the Nation’s treaty rights, and our ability to practice them, that tribal nations fought for, for decades and decades,” Johnston said.
As work to decide on a flood reduction and fish augmentation strategy for the basin continues, the Nation is promoting alternatives to a dam that can manage floods, and also rebuild fish runs that have declined by as much as 80 percent. Yet the Chehalis still is home to important fish runs, and is one of the few in the state without fish listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The draft environmental impact statement is just one step of what has been a long process ever since the 2007 flood. The search for a solution both to fish declines in the basin as well as flood management is far from over.
A second EIS is set to come on the project from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the fall. And in 2017, the state Legislature created a Washington State Office of the Chehalis Basin within Ecology and the Chehalis Basin Board to oversee development of a Chehalis Basin Strategy, to address both flooding and fish declines throughout the basin. The Legislature has appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars for their work.
The flood retention dam is a centerpiece of strategies on the table so far, to reduce flood peaks in the cities of Centralia and Chehalis. The cost for such a structure, which would retain water during possible flood events, but would otherwise allow the river’s flow to pass through, has been estimated at $628 million, including design, construction, permitting and mitigation.
In its analysis, Ecology found the project proposed by the Chehalis River Basin Flood Control Zone District would significantly degrade habitat in the temporary reservoir area. Taking climate change into account, water temperatures eventually would be raised by 9 degrees. In addition, 90 percent of trees in the area of the temporary reservoir, stretching more than 6 miles, would be removed.
When the reservoir fills, it would flood 847 acres, killing more trees and vegetation. Construction also would eliminate salmon spawning areas, and reduce salmon survival, with significant impacts on spring and fall run chinook, coho, steelhead, and other native fish including lamprey, according to Ecology. Wildlife, including marbled murrelets would also be significantly affected.
Downstream of the structure, water temperatures would be elevated and decreased oxygen levels would degrade water quality in the river for 20 miles. Spawning habitat would be eliminated and fish passage mortality increased.
Backers of the dam said the environmental review only looks at one part of the strategy still in the making — the structure — and doesn’t take into account other flood reduction measures; mitigation for the dam; or a companion fish enhancement plan still to be determined, let alone evaluated.
“If I looked just at this I would be against it too,” said Edna Fund, a Lewis County Commissioner who also is chair of the board of supervisors for the flood district that proposed the project, and an appointed member of the board evaluating options for the basin. “But this is just one chapter and there are a lot more chapters to come.”
Board member Jay Vander Stoep said he does not believe flood management to protect I-5, homes and farms in the basin is possible without the dam. The board’s charge is to address both flooding and fish, he said, adding that he was sorry to hear the Quinault Indian Nation’s opposition to the structure.
“I hope in the end when all these pieces are on the table, they can see a net plus.”