Chehalis River, WASHINGTON

Protecting the Chehalis for Spring Chinook

Spring Chinook have a distinct climate advantage: they enter the rivers early in the year, before hot summer flows arrive, and swim to cool springfed pools high in watersheds to ride out the summer months.

But if springers need to climb high into a river system, then physical barriers like dams can have an outsize impact on their success.

Now, we’re facing a new dam on the upper Chehalis River, smack-dab in prime spring Chinook spawning and rearing habitat. The dam has been proposed to residents of Lewis, Thurston, and Grays Harbor county as a way to mitigate costly flooding. But the dam, with a starting price tag of $628 million, won’t stop flooding, only reduce it modestly. That huge budget would be better spent on real solutions: reconnecting floodplains, replacing broken road culverts, and elevating at-risk structures, while protecting critical Chinook habitat.

The Chehalis remains one of Washington’s best steelhead fisheries and an important source of wild Chinook, especially for the Chehalis and Quinault people. Yet spring Chinook runs have been so low that the fishery has been closed for five years straight. Meanwhile, new research from a team including WSC Science Director Matt Sloat shows that because spring Chinook are genetically distinct from fall Chinook, their early return is likely hard-wired. That means once these runs are lost, strays from fall Chinook populations are not likely to replace them. Bottom line: the risk from the dam comes at exactly the wrong time for Chehalis spring Chinook.

“We know that springers in the Chehalis have been on the decline, and it’s even worse than we thought,” says Dr. Sloat. “This is not a hypothetical.”

As part of the Chehalis River Alliance, WSC has developed extensive scientific arguments against the dam and is supporting alliance communications during state and federal dam reviews.

We’re urging the state to pursue a smarter vision for the Chehalis: one that, like Chinook salmon, is adaptive across the whole watershed. A suite of flood control and habitat restoration strategies fits the challenges of the 21st century. What doesn’t is this dam: one big, costly, concrete fix, and a poor one at that.

Below: WSC’s Jess Helsley and Dan Penn of the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation on the Chehalis River (WSC). Bottom: schooling steelhead (Alamy). Top: Chehalis River (Shane Anderson, Pacific Rivers).

Cold Water Connection Gains Velocity

On the Olympic Peninsula, projections show salmon rivers could stay relatively cool even in the face of climate change. But access to cold water is crucial for wild salmon. Yet 4,000 known barriers—from culverts and other “mini-dams” to old roads—block fish from freely using these cold streams. And as a result of overdue maintenance and scant infrastructure spending, these barriers are degrading fast.

The Cold Water Connection Campaign, a joint partnership with Wild Salmon Center, Coast Salmon Partnership, and Trout Unlimited, is two years into an ambitious plan to map these barriers and identify exactly where better fish passage will pay off the most on rivers like the Hoh and Quillayute. The ultimate goal is to open some 150 miles of critical cold water habitat.

Prioritizing the right projects means trudging county roads, working with private landowners, and getting local, state, tribal, and federal agencies to share data. Thanks to substantial recent investments by Wallace Research Foundation and Open Rivers Fund, that work has accelerated—well-positioning our campaign for upcoming funding opportunities.

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