The Heart and the Highway: A perspective on the impacts of the proposed Chehalis River dam

The Heart and the Highway: A perspective on the impacts of the proposed Chehalis River dam

Conservation Northwest / May 26, 2020 / Cascades to Olympics, Habitat Restoration

Greater emphasis must be placed on restoration strategies that reduce flood risks to local communities, while restoring forests, floodplains, and habitat.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published as an Op-Ed in the May 12, 2020 edition of the Lewis County Daily Chronicle. Brian Stewart is our Cascades to Olympics Program Coordinator based in Onalaska in Lewis County, part of the Chehalis Basin.

Public comments on the Chehalis Dam Draft Environmental Impact Statement can be made through May 27 using our simple action form or on the state Department of Ecology website.

By Brian Stewart, Cascades to Olympics Coordinator
The proposed Chehalis Dam site in southwest Washington. Photo: Shane Anderson, Pacific Rivers

Ancient and beautiful, the Chehalis River is an aquatic artery pumping life into the heart of the Chehalis Basin—life that includes rich soil for farming, cold water for spring and summer Chinook, fall coho, and winter steelhead, and wildlife from Roosevelt elk to marbled murrelets. Draining southwest Washington’s Cascades and Willapa Hills since the last Ice Age, the natural processes of the Chehalis have made this abundance of life possible.

But one natural process has devastating impacts on communities in the Chehalis Basin: high-energy floods, which are increasing in frequency, fueled by climate change. One proposed solution is constructing a large retention facility, which is essentially a dam. Unfortunately, some aspects of this solution have been overlooked, such as the impacts on wildlife and habitat corridors.

In Washington state, 85 percent of wildlife depend on habitat near rivers. The Chehalis Basin is home to a wide range of critters, and rivers like the Chehalis serve as their natural highways. These highways allow animals to move around, find food and seek shelter, and provide movement opportunities based on day-to-day and generational needs, and on yearly or permanent migration forced by climate change.

The Department of Ecology’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement fails to address the disruption a dam would have on this natural highway. Furthermore, it fails to use any methodologies for migratory routes and connected habitats to address the impact on wildlife corridors (including those between the Cascade Mountains, Willapa Hills, and Olympic Peninsula).

The proposed Chehalis River dam site would be placed in one of the largest “natural linkages” in the Chehalis Basin, disrupting movement for wildlife.

The construction and operation of the dam will put pressure not only on endangered species like the marbled murrelet, but all the native wildlife in the area. Unfortunately, for some smaller animals and nesting birds, the area around the dam will be a continued source of disturbance and death, as each flood will inundate their habitat.

The proposed dam would not only put pressure on endangered species like the marbled murrelet, but all native wildlife in the area. Photo Rick Bowers / Audubon

This project will also destroy hundreds of acres of quality forests. A major natural highway will be cut down to two lanes, and a life-giving artery will be further constricted, increasing environmental pressure and decreasing wildlife habitat and movement opportunities.

Adding to these ecological costs, the dam will not eliminate extreme flooding events like that of 2007—it will only reduce their depth and duration. Key infrastructure like I-5 will still be shut down during the worst flood events. Unfortunately, this means the dam will degrade the landscape while still allowing the most devastating floods to adversely impact communities.

There is an undeniable truth about this issue: a do-nothing approach is unacceptable. That’s why supporting sustainable flood reduction projects may be a more feasible and cost-effective solution. Furthermore, we should remain skeptical that a dam can be constructed without doing irreparable damage to habitat, fish, wildlife, and natural highways that run through and connect the Chehalis Basin. So, what else can be done?

Sustainable projects that can be done today:

  • Replacing undersized culverts to prevent water from backing up.
  • Allowing certain areas to intentionally flood.
    A Chinook salmon, one of several species of Pacific salmon and steelhead that return to the Chehalis River. The Chehalis is one of few Washington watersheds where these fish are not listed under the Endangered Species Act. Photo: UW
  • Restoring floodplain forests so trees soak up more water and flooding is reduced downstream.
  • Paying fair prices for property to residents and businesses that want to move out of the floodplain.
  • Elevating homes, businesses and utilities.
  • Stopping floodplain development.

Concerns regarding floods, threatened property and livelihoods are legitimate. As a Lewis County resident, I sincerely empathize. But I believe greater emphasis must be placed on restoration strategies that reduce flood risks to local communities, while restoring forests, floodplains, and habitat.

Whether it is a natural highway wildlife use or an aquatic artery pumping life into the landscape, the Chehalis Basin’s natural resources, environment and wildlife is its ever-endearing hallmark. We should be fighting to maintain and increase the unique environmental elements of our glorious landscape, not further diminishing it.

If you feel strongly about this issue, please send in your comments or concerns by May 27th  to

Brian Stewart, MES
Cascades to Olympics Program Representative, Conservation Northwest

Please TAKE ACTION for a free-flowing Chehalis River today! learn more about our efforts to connect and restore this region through our CASCADES TO OLYMPICS PROGRAM
The Chehalis River runs wild near the proposed dam site in southwest Washington’s Willapa Hills, a key connectivity area for wildlife and critical spawning habitat for salmon and steelhead. Photo: Shane Anderson, Pacific Rivers