The Department of Ecology is prepping for the start of 17 fish-passage improvement projects intended to open up 32.5 miles of habitat in the Chehalis Basin that is critical to the health of salmon and other aquatic species.
The Chehalis Basin is the state’s second-largest watershed, covering 2,700 square miles across Southwest Washington. The headwaters of the Chehalis River begin in Cowlitz County before rolling through Lewis, Thurston and Grays Harbor counties on the way to the Pacific Ocean. Tributaries to the mainstem Chehalis River, including the Black, Elk, Johns, Hoquiam, Humptulips, Newaukum, Satsop, Skookumchuck, Wishkah, and Wynoochee rivers, along with many streams.
Recently the Chehalis Basin Board set aside $4 million in funds to tackle high-urgency projects within the basin. Those priorities are outlined in the Chehalis Basin Strategy, which aims to reduce flooding impacts while restoring aquatic and riparian habitat. Between 2015-17 some $5.6 million in grants were provided to improve fish passage barriers, which resulted in fresh access to nearly 65 miles of habitat.
The Chehalis River system is notable in that it is the only basin in the state without a federally listed endangered salmon species. However, fish stocks have been trending in the wrong direction.
According to Kirsten Harma, watershed coordinator for the Chehalis Lead Entity, coastal wild salmon runs are only 10 percent of what they were just 100 years ago.
“Undersized and poorly aligned culverts — the pipes that go under roads — are one of the greatest limitations to salmon productivity in many of the Chehalis’ tributaries. These recently funded projects will allow streams to function naturally again, providing the conditions fish need,” Harma said, in a press release.
Harma noted that the work of her non-profit organization is focused on creating healthy salmon habitat, but the outcomes are often beneficial to people as well.
“Naturally functioning rivers help people, too, because undersized culverts also temporarily back up water. Some of these projects will have the added benefit of helping reduce flooding of our transportation corridors and private lands in the Chehalis basin,” said Harma.
A series of projects in Grays Harbor County are expected to open up about 19 miles of historic fish habitat in the coming months, as well. Those fish passage projects will open up 8.2 miles of habitat in Bush Creek near Elma, 5.5 miles of habitat in Sandy Creek near McCleary, and 1.5 miles of habitat on Geissler Creek outside Montesano. The Grays harbor Conservation District will also redesign a small farm crossing in Oakville known as the Mattson barrier, in order to provide fish access to 4.1 miles of habitat up a tributary that drains into the Chehalis River.
“These three projects are critical. Salmon, steelhead and cutthroat need unrestricted access to shaded stream reaches to spawn and rear. Upstream areas also serve as important nurseries for juvenile fish during their fresh water life prior to migrating out to sea,” said Lonnie Crumley, task force chairman, in the release. “Providing new access to these important habitat areas on Bush, Sand and Geissler creeks is one way we can help ensure that there will be salmon in the Chehalis basin for coming generations.”
In Lewis County the planned instream work will result in 13 miles of fish habitat reopening. That work will include the replacement of an impassable culvert and the realignment of the Frase Creek channel in order to provide access to 3.5 miles of heavily forested habitat for coho, steelhead and cutthroat trout. Lewis County will also replace a culvert and add large woody debris to Prairie Creek in order to open up 4.9 miles of upstream forest habitat. Additionally, there are two projects scheduled for Berwick Creek near Chehalis. The Port of Chehalis has committed to designing two replacement culverts in order to open up 1.4 miles of upstream habitat for salmon and trout, while the Lewis County Conservation District will work to redesign a blocked culvert that currently impedes access to 3.3 miles of upstream habitat.
“These gains for fish would not have been possible without the groundwork laid by local organizations working on salmon recovery projects in the Chehalis basin for the past 20 years,” said Gordon White, interim director for the Office of Chehalis Basin, in a press release. “Besides funding and support from our office, these groups are bringing additional funding, experience, and passion to ensure fish remain a permanent part of the basin landscape.”
Those projects are a part of the Chehalis Basin Aquatic Species Restoration Plan. That plan is overseen by a steering committee made up of voting representatives from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Quinault Indian Nation, and Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, and non-voting members from Ecology, Washington Department of Natural Resources, and the Chehalis Lead Entity.