Chehalis system dam needs attention on salmon, Quinaults say

By Alex Brown

The (Centralia) Chronicle

As state and federal officials begin the first step of the environmental review process for a proposed dam near Pe Ell, leaders of the Quinault Indian Nation are voicing concerns about the effects of the project throughout the Chehalis River Basin.

“Now is the time to talk about how much the dam will cost, who will benefit and who won’t, and how it will affect salmon runs that have been on the decline for decades,” read a statement released Friday by the tribe.

In the release, the Quinault Nation said that overruns could lead to the project costing more than $1 billion, which could pull funding away from projects in other areas of the Chehalis Basin. In addition, it asks for a clear review of how the dam would affect salmon, asking the environmental review team to consider alternatives that are more “cost-effective” and include a focus on salmon habitat.

“There’s a lot of communities that reside and call different parts of the Chehalis Basin home that aren’t included in this project,” Quinault Nation vice president Tyson Johnston said in an interview. “If it weren’t by the I-5 corridor, would this be given as much attention? That is where the Nation is coming from. We need to shine a flashlight basinwide.”

The concerns come as the Washington State Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers begin a joint “scoping” process, which will solicit public feedback over which elements will be included in the longer-term environmental impact statement that will inform decisions about the dam.

Larry Lestelle, a consulting biologist to the Quinault Tribe, said the ultimate decision over the dam will come down to a simple, vexing choice: protecting the I-5 corridor and cities like Centralia and Chehalis from potentially billions of dollars in flood damages, or ensuring the survival of salmon that have a significant connection to area tribes’ history and well-being.

“That’s what it comes down to,” he said. “It comes down to society weighing, what are the risks and what are the benefits?”

Quinault leaders are hoping the risks to salmon are given an extensive look as part of the environmental review.

“The Quinault Indian Nation, we’re a salmon people,” Johnston said. “We depend on this for our livelihood as well as culturally. There’s an inherent spiritual value. … It’s integral to who we are.”

At the state and local level, the leaders who have shepherded the project to this point said the concerns of the tribe are exactly what the environmental review is designed to address.

“A lot of the issues that the Quinault Nation raised are exactly the issues that we’re looking to get as we’re going through the scoping process,” said Department of Ecology communications manager Curt Hart. “That is exactly why we’re starting this environmental review and starting with scoping.”

Even before the start of the scoping process that will consider other categories, Ecology has identified more than a dozen areas that will be considered in the environmental review. Those include fish and wildlife, tribal resources, wetlands and vegetation, water resources and quality, cultural resources, climate change and alternatives — including one that involves taking no action. The Corps of Engineers will come up with its own categories.

Within Ecology is the Office of the Chehalis Basin, which oversees implementation of the Chehalis Basin Strategy, a plan created by state and local leaders. By law, it must “aggressively pursue” both flood damage reduction and aquatic species restoration.

Meanwhile, the Chehalis Basin Board provides oversight for the implementation. It includes members of the Quinault Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation and members from the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority. Requests for comment from the Chehalis tribe were directed to the chairman’s office, which was closed for National Native American Day on Friday.

The long-discussed dam project is designed to mitigate the damages that have occurred in the upper basin during severe flooding events. At a site near Pe Ell that’s currently Weyerhaeuser-owned timberland, officials have proposed building the structure, which will stand 254 feet tall with a spillway that’s 210 feet wide.

Under normal conditions, the river will be allowed to pass through as it normally does. During major floods, though, gates would be raised to create a temporary reservoir, preventing the surge of water downstream that has flooded the I-5 corridor. That scenario is currently projected to take place about every seven years, inundating a six-mile stretch of the river’s path over an area of about 800 acres. The devastating flood in 2007 closed the interstate for four days and caused an estimated $900 million in economic damage.

“We wouldn’t be building a water-retention facility if we didn’t have I-5 being closed for three to four days when we have a flood event,” Lewis County commissioner Edna Fund said during a tour of the dam site in June. “We’d be in a whole different situation if we didn’t. That’s why legislators from east to west support this project.”

Quinault leaders, though, are concerned that the political will to protect the I-5 corridor won’t be matched by efforts in other parts of the Chehalis Basin, or by projects to protect and restore salmon habitat. The Chehalis Basin Strategy calls for a two-pronged approach, with an emphasis on both flood mitigation and aquatic habitat restoration. The dam project falls into the flood mitigation category. The tribe is calling for assurances that the habitat portion of the strategy — known as the Aquatic Species Restoration Plan — will be officially tied into plans for the dam.

“Funding for (ASRP) would need to continue for decades after a dam is built in order to produce positive results,” said the tribe’s release. “There is no guarantee that funding will continue long enough to offset the negative impacts caused by a dam.”

Johnston added that leaving the flood mitigation and habitat goals separate could leave the latter goal vulnerable once the goal of protecting I-5 is achieved.

“We want to make sure that both plans are implemented together,” he said. “The goal to build the dam is a one-fix measure. After this process exhausts itself, there’s not any kind of guarantee that funding for projects for restoration would continue. … This is an intergenerational issue, and there’s no guarantee that in the future that these issues will be addressed.”

Officials said habitat restoration remains a key element for all the agencies who are working under the Chehalis Basin Strategy.

“I do not think other efforts will be left behind,” said Fund, who is a supervisor for the Chehalis River Basin Flood Control Zone District, which has sponsored the dam project. “We’ve got the political will to do all of this. … We have folks at the table that represent different organizations and priorities.”

J. Vander Stoep, a board member of the Office of the Chehalis Basin, said he understood the tribe’s concern.

“The Quinault Indian Nation is approaching this process with integrity,” he said. “They have said, like all tribes, that dams make them very nervous. The history of dams and fish in the Northwest is not good. This proposal is a very dramatically different proposal than a conventional river-blocking dam.”

He also commended the tribe for pushing to ensure the habitat work, under the fear that “they’ll build the dam, and then we’ll forget about the fish.” Vander Stoep said stakeholders are committed to both aspects of the effort, and noted that habitat work will be progressing quickly even during the decade or more it will take to permit and build the dam.

“I understand the concern. They’re right to raise it,” he said. “The habitat work is moving very quickly. … If both of these things happen, there would be a very major net benefit to the fishery.”

The Quinault Nation, though, is not so sure about that benefit. Lestelle said the Chinook salmon that spawn upstream of the dam all spawn within the six-mile footprint of the reservoir that would be created during flood events. Salmon eggs depend on flowing water to bring them oxygen, meaning that all eggs upstream of the dam would be killed in years the reservoir is created.

“Eggs cannot survive with a lake over the top of them,” he said. “If you suddenly stop the flow of water, there’s no fresh oxygen that’s being supplied to those eggs, and in a relatively short term they would all die.”

That’s especially concerning to the spring Chinook salmon run, which has special ecological and cultural importance. Those salmon enter the river earlier in the year, which means they’re subjected longer to the pressures of its habitat degradation, such as warmer water due to the cutback of vegetation in riparian zones. That species has been “decimated” along the West Coast, Lestelle said.

“Of all the salmon runs in the Chehalis system, spring Chinook are the ones that are in the toughest shape,” he said. “One of the strongholds historically was in the Upper Chehalis upstream of Pe Ell. Today, the run is much reduced … If a dam was to be built in that area, it would seal the fate of that remnant run that’s still in the Chehalis. The other thing a dam would do is foreclose the opportunity to restore that Upper Chehalis run.”

Vander Stoep praised Lestelle’s expertise, but offered another perspective that put more hope in the the prospects of habitat restoration along with the dam.

“The forecast for climate change’s impacts on the fishery in the Chehalis Basin is really bad, including basically the extermination of the spring Chinook over the next 100 years. That’s the do-nothing option. … What this strategy offers is the opportunity to turn that around and have increasing numbers … even in the face of climate change.”

Vander Stoep and other officials involved with the project noted that the scoping process now underway is designed to collect just the kind of feedback that the Quinault Nation is offering. Both Ecology and the Corps of Engineers will be taking public comments online at the Chehalis Basin Strategy website. In addition, they’ll be holding two open houses, one at Centralia College on Oct. 17 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The other will take place the day before at Montesano City Hall, covering the same time.

“This is the first step and first opportunity for the public to give us what they think should be in the scope (of the environmental impact statement),” said Diane Butorac, the dam’s project manager at Ecology. “The EIS is a reference document. It doesn’t make a decision one way or another. It does pull together information in a factual and neutral way.”

The scoping process will run through Oct. 29.

Officials said the cost concern raised by the Quinault Nation is harder to address. Current estimates peg the project at about $385 million, while the tribe uses a figure of $628 million that figures in inflation over a long time period of building the dam. Given likely cost overruns that have plagued similar projects, they believe it could balloon to more than $1 billion. None of the officials involved in the project was willing to stake it to a specific figure, noting the fluctuation of such huge endeavors, but noted the ten-figure savings in flood damages it would produce over a century of use.

“There’s a high cost, but there’s an even higher cost of doing nothing,” Vander Stoep said.