World Rivers Day: a focus on the Chehalis Basin

World Rivers Day: a focus on the Chehalis Basin

Conservation Northwest / Sep 27, 2021 / Cascades to Olympics

In recognition of World Rivers Day, learn about our work in the Chehalis Basin and watch a free viewing of Chehalis: A Watershed Moment

By Brian Stewart, Cascades to Olympics Program Coordinator

World Rivers Day, which was September 26, 2021, is a day used to highlight the importance of rivers, and encourages stewardship and conservation of rivers around the globe. In that spirit Conservation Northwest is asking folks to join the Chehalis River Alliance for a free viewing of “Chehalis: A Watershed moment”, to learn about the Chehalis River, the challenges it faces, and what you can do to protect it.  The video is available to watch through the end of the day today, September 27!

A Chinook salmon, one of several species of Pacific salmon and steelhead that return to the Chehalis River and its tributaries. Photo: UW

The Chehalis River and its tributaries are known for salmon, fish, and other aquatic life. And this area is critical for our Cascades to Olympics habitat connectivity program.

In addition, the river system supports a diverse suite of native flora and fauna unique to the state. In Washington state, 85 percent of all wildlife utilize riparian corridors for some part of their life cycle, and there are not many river systems that support biodiversity at the scale seen in the riparian corridor networks of the Chehalis Basin. Accelerating climate change has made these corridors even more important as plants and animals seek to adapt to a changing climate and/or find climate refugia via those networks of riparian corridors.

If native species are going to adapt and persist in the region, they will need opportunities to move freely and the networks of rivers in the Chehalis Basin offer just such an opportunity for many species. That is why supporting the Aquatic Species Restoration Plan (ASRP) and the Local Actions Non-Dam (LAND) alternative, as viable and necessary solutions to the state of ecological decline and catastrophic flooding in and around the Chehalis Basin, is an important step to protecting and extending these essential riparian corridors.

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

An aquatic artery

In past commentary, I have referred to the Chehalis River as an “aquatic artery pumping life into the heart of the basin”, although an artful metaphor, it is not far from the ecological reality. The Chehalis Basin has a wealth of biodiversity, excellent soils, and abundant water all of which depend upon healthy watersheds and riparian corridors throughout the Chehalis Basin, and extending upland through its tributaries. Good habitat, healthy corridors, free-flowing rivers and wildlands are disappearing in this landscape. One way to help revive those systems is to conserve, extend, connect, and expand the major riverine systems and riparian corridors throughout the basin. Clogging, rerouting, or restricting a river can have negative cascading impacts on some species, just like an artery being clogged, rerouted, or restricted there will be implications throughout the system potentially leading to catastrophic failure.  We should then be skeptical of any proposed solution to the current flooding in the basin, which relies on further disruption of the Chehalis River and its associated riparian networks.

The Chehalis Basin is important habitat for Roosevelt elk as well as fishers, marbled murrelets, and other species. Photo: Eric Foltz

Overall, climate change will force wildlife to adapt, therefore we must not limit this ancient evolutionary process. Fragmented populations can see up to 50 percent more extirpations and extinctions than species that can move freely, as movement is a key adaptation strategy for many species. Thus, we should be opening corridors and protecting linkages for the future of the state’s wildlife not restricting them.

On this World Rivers Day, I would like folks to think about all of the other creatures and processes that are not in the river or maybe even near it, but are dependent on the health of the waterway nonetheless. When we look beyond the river’s edge, we see a connected network of systems, life, and processes, all of which are a part of, and benefit from, the river, which in return benefits from them, a relationship developed over  millennia. We should consider respecting this age-old process of change that forges temporal and spatial genetic and landscape resiliency. One way to do that, is by restoring, protecting and connecting the networks of riparian corridors associated with the Chehalis River and its tributaries.

To learn more about the Chehalis River, Chehalis Basin Strategy and what you can do to protect this majestic waterway, check out the Chehalis River Alliance’s website
The proposed Chehalis Dam site in southwest Washington. Photo: Shane Anderson, Pacific Rivers