Hoquiam River salmon, city water supply to benefit from dam removal

City probing for alternate water source, further funding before moving ahead with project

The most imposing physical obstacle for salmon and steelhead entering the Hoquiam River lies 11 miles upstream from the river’s mouth. There, for the last 70 years, fish have met a wall of concrete and whitewater, to which first they are drawn and attempt to jump over, but after a tiresome effort yield to the right, where a series of ascending stone troughs might help them pass the dam to prime spawning grounds.

But West Fork Hoquiam fish of the future may not face the same challenge as previous generations.

The West Fork Hoquiam dam, listed by the state as one of the most harmful barriers to fish passage in the entire Chehalis Basin, could be removed in the coming years, potentially connecting downstream habitat with a dozen more miles of precious egg-nurturing gravel.

The city of Hoquiam, the dam’s owner, has eyed its removal for years. The city must first figure out how to put to rest the aging infrastructure the city relies on to capture some of its drinking water.

Last week, local government leaders, fish biologists, project engineers and representatives from salmon conservation groups met for a tour of the West Fork Hoquiam dam, hosted by the Chehalis Basin Partnership.

In December 2022, the city received a $1.2 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for two purposes: to find out what tearing down the dam might look like, and to determine if another water source in the area can replace it.

After the feasibility study is complete, some of the construction costs could come from $4 million federal funding through the offices of U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell. The project is included in their funding lists, and Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay said he is “confident” the money will come through.

For the city, removing the dam is a priority not only to improve fish habitat, but to improve the long-term sustainability of the city’s water system, Shay said.

The dam spans the West Fork Hoquiam river a few yards east of U.S. Highway 101, just north of the town of New London. Currently, the city diverts water at the dam and pumps it underneath U.S. Highway 101 to its water treatment plant a few miles south. The road poses inherent water quality risks, while the aging dam, which was built in 1956, needs significant improvements to comply with current regulations.

In addition, a pattern of warmer, drier spring and summer conditions will mean lower summertime flows and inconsistent water availability. Removing the dam will also keep more water in the stream.

Water is diverted from the West Fork dam at two cubic feet — or seven-and-a-half gallons — per second, which accounts for only about 10% of the city’s supply. The majority of drinking water comes from a dam on Davis Creek (which also ranked highly on the state’s priority list), just north of the water treatment plant.

That means the city needs to find one-tenth of its water elsewhere.

“This is a big part of the feasibility of the dam removal because if we can’t get water that the city needs that would replace the source, it’s hard for the city to justify getting rid of the dam if they don’t have an alternative source,” said Kelsey Mach, a project geologist with Aspect Consulting, the city’s contracted engineer for the project.

This summer, as part of the recent NOAA grant, Aspect Consulting will drill two test wells to probe an aquifer they’ve identified in the area of the water treatment plant. In a pilot study conducted by the city 10 years ago, two wells on the grounds of the plant brought water to the surface.

The key is finding the “sweet spot” — a blend of sand gravel to naturally filter groundwater, deep enough to avoid surface contamination but not quite down to the hard bedrock, said Jill Van Hulle, a water rights specialist with Aspect Consulting.

“Our exploratory drilling is going to give us a very, very good understanding of whether or not we’re going to get the kind of capacity that the city wants,” Van Hulle said.

If the test drills discover an adequate aquifer, Van Hulle said, it will justify the cost of improvements to the city’s water treatment plant. The two test wells could then be converted to functioning wells pumping water into the plant.

But tapping into an aquifer also means applying for a brand new water right. The city currently holds surface water rights for the West Fork Hoquiam River, but not for the water held in gravels deep underground. Van Hulle said Aspect filed that application last year through the Department of Ecology and is currently in the department’s “laborious” process.

The city’s current grant will also pay for some designs, cost estimates, and the massive amounts of permitting required for the project. Aspect and the city will have to do something about the heavy silt settled in the slow-flowing water behind the dam. When the dam breaks, that silt will flow downstream, potentially causing adverse effects for fish.

Curt Holt, a fish biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife who worked for years on the West Fork, recalled a time when silt from the dam washed downstream, smothering and killing salmon and steelhead.

Starting in 1985, Holt spent many hours standing in the fish ladder on the West Fork Hoquiam. A fish biologist for the Quinault Indian Nation at the time, Holt needed to nail down a reliable method for fish counting, and the West Fork was his testing grounds.

The 1974 Boldt decision upheld tribal fishing treaty rights by finding that half of all available fish harvested in traditional rivers could be taken by the tribes. That meant it had to be determined how many fish were in rivers and streams. But, given their environment, counting fish can be difficult.

In their study, Holt and a fisheries crew used the West Fork dam’s dividing power to their advantage. When fish passed through the ladder, Holt scooped them up, measured and tagged them, took scale samples, recorded their sex, and released them above the dam. Then they swam upstream to spawn.

There, John Bryson traversed the banks of the river, searching for round gravel nests in the streambed — salmon redds. Based on the number of redds in the stream, Bryson formulated a number of total returning salmon, and, at the end of the season, compared it to the exact number of fish counted by Holt in the fish ladder.

For the most part, they were spot on. They went on to use the redd counting method in other Olympic Peninsula rivers. The study carried on for 16 years, and Bryson, who worked in fisheries for 30 years and is now a Quinault Indian Nation council member, spent many hours on the West Fork.

“There’s some really nice habitat for the fish above here (the dam), and I think when we remove this dam it’ll be utilized even more,” he said.

Depending on the species, dam removal will open anywhere from two to 13 miles of spawning habitat for salmon and steelhead. For fall Chinook, about one-third of total spawning grounds in the Hoquiam basin are located upstream of the West Fork dam.

About 1% of the total fish in the Chehalis Basin travel above the West Fork dam to spawn. That number, while small, is still crucial, Holt said.

“Every fish counts,” he said.

Throughout his long career in fisheries, Holt said he never expected he would see the dam come out, or even a proposal to do so.

Ultimately dam removal will be followed by stream restoration through planting native vegetation. The result is greater stream complexity: a messy, meandering river.

The more wood in the stream, the better for fish, Holt said, adding that the name Hoquiam is derived from a Native word meaning “hungry for wood” — a testament to the debris that once cluttered the river.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.

Clayton Franke / The Daily World
John Bryson, left, looks down at water flowing from the West Fork Hoquiam dam. He spent 30 years working in fisheries, including participation in a study on the West Fork in the 1980s and ’90s. He is now on the Quinault Indian Nation tribal council.

Clayton Franke / The Daily World John Bryson, left, looks down at water flowing from the West Fork Hoquiam dam. He spent 30 years working in fisheries, including participation in a study on the West Fork in the 1980s and ’90s. He is now on the Quinault Indian Nation tribal council.