Dam proposal threatens fish, habitat in Chehalis Watershed

Dam proposal threatens fish, habitat in Chehalis Watershed

Conservation Northwest / Nov 14, 2016 / Action Alert, Cascades to Olympics

WILD NW Action Alert #266: Submit a comment on the state’s Chehalis Basin Strategy in favor of watershed restoration and against a new dam that would threaten wild fish.

NOTE: Comments on the Chehalis Basin Strategy PEIS closed on November 14, 2016. We will provide updates as new information is available.

With the largest dam removal project in history wrapping up on Washington’s Elwha River, our state has been a leader in a movement to reconsider our relationships with wild rivers and the fish, wildlife and people that depend on them.

Yet south of the Elwha, the State of Washington is considering a proposal, among other options, for a major new dam that would block wild salmon, flood wildlife habitat, and impact Native American communities. This would be a giant leap in the wrong direction!

Decades of development in the floodplain, widespread logging in the upper watershed, and other man-made changes to the Chehalis and its tributaries have contributed to flooding in recent years, impacting local communities and even periodically flooding Interstate 5.

We recognize that flooding creates significant impacts for residents, towns, agriculture and transportation. Action needs to be taken to reduce flood affects, and any alternative that involves loss of farmland needs to have community support and viable places for agriculture to continue. But this watershed also has important ecological, recreational, and cultural values that must be considered.

The Chehalis is Washington’s second largest river basin. Though aquatic habitat has been significantly degraded, it’s one of few West Coast undammed watersheds that still retain relatively healthy wild salmon and steelhead runs. These fish are prized by the local Chehalis and Quinault Nations, and the fisheries they provide contribute significantly to the area’s economy.

The riparian corridors of the Chehalis and its tributaries also provide important habitat for animals from elk to cougars. And because of its position between the Olympic Peninsula, Willapa Hills and South Cascades, this watershed provides important connectivity for species such as fishers and wolves. Maintaining and improving this habitat connection between the Cascades and Olympics is a major goal of Conservation Northwest’s work in the years ahead.

The good news is that there are alternatives to the dam being proposed – restoring forests and floodplains to store water, comprehensive salmon and aquatic species habitat restoration, and a suite of local flood-proofing and flood risk-reduction actions. Much of the floodplain restoration and I-5 flood risk reduction improves habitat connectivity for upland species. In addition, it’s important to look at the role of better forest management in the uplands for both reduced flooding and improved low summer flows. It’s possible to reduce flooding in the Chehalis and restore this watershed for fish and wildlife at the same time.

Washington decision makers need to hear from you. Later this year, the Governor will propose which of the alternatives, or some combination of them, should be considered, and next year the legislature will determine what further studies and actions will be funded. Any major project will then have to go through a detailed project-level Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which will include further opportunities for public input.

To ensure that watershed restoration is considered throughout this process, it’s important that we speak up TODAY! Thank you for taking action on behalf of the fish, wildlife and people of the Chehalis Watershed! 

Learn more about the Chehalis Basin Strategy Programmatic EIS here

Suggested Comments on Chehalis Basin Strategy PEIS:

Dear Chehalis Basin Strategy PEIS team,

Thank you for this opportunity to submit comments on this important issue. Washington’s watersheds, and the people, fish and wildlife that depend on them, are important to me and my family.

As a concerned citizen and a supporter of wild fish, abundant wildlife and healthy ecosystems, as well as thriving tribal nations and local communities, I strongly support efforts to restore natural watershed functions in the Chehalis. And I strongly oppose proposals to construct a new fish-blocking dam in this watershed. Restoring the natural values of the Chehalis Watershed would reduce flood impacts and also improve vital habitat and connectivity for fish and wildlife, including iconic Chinook salmon.

I recognize that flooding in the Chehalis Basin is a serious issue for local communities, agriculture and transportation. As such, it’s important that efforts to repair watershed functions and restore natural water storage in this basin be accompanied by commonsense measures to reduce community impacts from ten- to hundred-year floods. Proposed measures from building raised platforms in dairy pastures to supporting commercial and residential structure protection would add to the resilience of local communities and reduce the need for a major dam.

Human activities have already altered this watershed over the past century, significantly impairing natural functions and resulted in increasing flood damage, degraded habitat, and fish population declines. In order to effectively address these issues we must rebuild natural processes and climate resiliency, not build new dams.

I want to emphasize that taking no action is not an option for the fish, wildlife and habitat of the Chehalis Basin, which are declining under current conditions and will decline faster as the climate changes. No action is also not acceptable for the people of the Chehalis Basin or for our region. Action is needed. However, given how long the flood proposals will take to implement, especially the dams which will be mired in controversy for years, early action on habitat and local flood damage reduction is needed now and should continue regardless of the status of other flood control proposals.

With this in mind, I strongly support Restorative Flood Protection Actions (RFP), Aquatic Species Restoration Actions (ASR), and Local Flood Damage Reduction actions, including bridge expansion to accommodate wildlife passage under I-5 at Salzer Creek. The Chehalis Basin is the second largest watershed in the state and it supports what is likely the largest floodplain matrix in the state. The watershed also supports the highest diversity of amphibians in the state, including species protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) such as Oregon spotted frog, as well as salmon and steelhead populations that have been on a downward trend toward ESA listings, and serves as a key upland habitat connection between the Cascades and Olympics. The RFP and ASR actions will have significant positive impacts on salmon, amphibians, and other species by restoring habitat, the natural river channel and floodplain processes, and landscape habitat connectivity. Restoring these natural processes will also reduce flood damage by buffering high flow events and work in concert with Local Flood Damage Reductions Actions. These actions should be selected.

The Restorative Flood Approach is an important and environmentally preferable alternative that was added very late in the PEIS development process. Its technical, economic and social details need to be further developed before a decision as to feasibility is possible. But it captures the right way to go – please give it a chance.

We also encourage you to take a closer look at the role of forest management in the uplands and its contributions to flood flows in the winter and unnaturally low flows in the late summer.  We encourage additional modeling to examine whether changed forest management can play a role in improving watershed conditions.

Thank you for considering my comments, and for working to ensure a future in the Chehalis Basin that values fish, wildlife and human communities.