Located in Southwest Washington, the Chehalis River flows 115 miles and influences a 2,700 square mile river basin. The Chehalis provides invaluable habitat for wild populations of steelhead, spring and fall-runs of Chinook salmon, Coho salmon, and many other species of wildlife. Additionally, the Chehalis’ salmon production supports the imperiled Southern Resident Killer Whales.

This essential habitat found in the Chehalis River and the larger Chehalis basin, is being threatened by a 250 foot tall dam. Efforts to dam the Chehalis began more than 20 years ago, as a way to control the flood-prone Chehalis River. Now, the dam has serious momentum and is in the environmental review stage of the permitting process. The dam is expected to cost $628 million, and that value could be much higher.

Chehalis River Basin Flood Damage Reduction Project DEIS

The Chehalis River Basin Flood Damage Reduction Project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) highlights all the potential benefits and harm that would come from the dam. For migrating salmon and steelhead, the dam would have “significant impacts” for these fish and a number of other species of wildlife. Modeling done by the Project finds a “decline in salmon and steelhead numbers,” “reduced genetic diversity,” and “reduced future restoration options” due to the dam’s construction.

Chehalis River basin in Lewis County, Washington. Courtesy of Washington Department of Ecology

Sure, the dam may improve the effect of flooding in the region, but there are less destructive alternatives that would address the impacts of the Chehalis’ flooding tendency. A better approach, says Wild Salmon Center, involves restoring natural floodplain function to the Upper Chehalis and flood-proofing I-5’s most at-risk stretches.

“Chehalis River salmon and steelhead sustained the Chehalis people for millennia, and now generations of anglers, commercial fishermen, and resident orcas,” says Jess Helsley, Wild Salmon Center’s Washington Program Director. “Those runs are already at risk. A massive dam would be the nail in the coffin for one of Washington’s last, great salmon rivers.”

Additionally, the dam would violate tribal treaty rights. The Quinault Indian Nation has since come out in opposition to the project, based on the unavoidable harm to salmon and steelhead runs. For many Native American Tribes, salmon and steelhead are a source of cultural importance, sustenance, economic opportunities, and–in many cases–a legal right that is supposed to be guaranteed by the Federal Government.

Courtesy of Washington Department of Ecology

The comment period for the DEIS was supposed to end on April 27, but due to COVID-19 impacts, The Washington Department of Ecology extended the deadline to May 27. If you want to comment, you have a couple options. First, you can take advantage of Wild Salmon Center’s easy-to-use form, which can be accessed here. Additionally, you can draft your own message and submit a comment directly through the Chehalis Basin Strategy Project website.

The Washington Department of Ecology summarized the impacts of the proposed Project:

  • The EIS found the Flood District’s project would reduce flooding to buildings and infrastructure, including U.S. Interstate 5.
  • The EIS found the project would have adverse effects on:
    • Salmon and other fish, and their habitat
    • Some wildlife, such as amphibians
    • Water quality
    • The Chehalis River channel
    • Recreation
  • The project would also increase greenhouse gas emissions and could significantly impact tribal and cultural resources.

Salmon and steelhead numbers in the Pacific Northwest today are a fraction of what they used to be, and that is 100 percent due to anthropogenic factors. I do not mean to minimize the flooding impacts affecting this region, but we, as a society, cannot keep negatively influencing the life cycles of anadromous fish species–especially when nature-based solutions exist and are viable. Comment today to advocate for wild Chehalis salmon and steelhead!

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