Quinault Indian Nation call for removal of Skookumchuck Dam

The Quinault Indian Nation announced that they have filed a petition with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) calling for the removal of the Skookumchuck Dam. 

The tribe told KXRO that the dam was originally built without any upstream fish passage, blocking access to an estimated 21 miles of spawning habitat for several species of salmon in the Skookumchuck River, including a run of spring Chinook that is currently under consideration for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

 The petition alleges that the Skookumchuck Dam violates a state law that prohibits blockage of fish passage, and the tribe says that WDFW is authorized, under the law, to require its removal. They add that this is particularly relevant now that the dam’s original purpose of providing water to the TransAlta coal power plant will no longer be needed.

“We have a once-in-a-generation chance to make a huge improvement in conditions for salmon and the health of the river. Dam removal has proven over and over again to be one of the fastest and best ways to bring salmon back from the brink of extinction and put them on a road to recovery.” said Quinault Indian Nation Councilman John Bryson Jr. “For the State of Washington, it’s a chance to do something big to back up its words to save salmon and deliver on treaty rights.”

 The 2022 State of Salmon report says, “Salmon continue to struggle in Washington. Most species are in crisis or not keeping pace with recovery goals.” On the Skookumchuck River, the dam and reservoir have drowned and blocked access to historic spawning habitat and altered the natural flow of the river. Before construction of the dam, it is estimated that 1,800 coho, 500 spring Chinook, 371 fall Chinook spawned upstream of where the dam sits today.

“Salmon were already declining due to habitat loss from intensive logging and other land uses so when the dam came along and cut off access to prime spawning grounds, it was a final blow to bringing them back to self-sustaining levels,” said Larry Lestelle, a consulting fish biologist with the Quinault Indian Nation. “If we free the river, restoring access to spawning grounds and returning the river to a more natural flow regime, we should see a significant boost in abundance as shown with other dam removals in Washington State and elsewhere.” 

The tribe said that in 2021, the Department of Ecology approved water rights for the state’s second largest water bank, 26,631 acre-feet per year, to the owner of the dam and power plant, Canada-based TransAlta, above what was necessary or allowable.  

“TransAlta owns the dam. The company does not own the river. The river is a public resource and with the purpose of the dam coming to an end we have a tremendous opportunity to enhance the resilience of the river ecosystem for the benefit of people and salmon,” said Janette Brimmer of Earthjustice. “Instead, the TransAlta water bank will perpetuate the significant harms from the dam while over-promising water that is getting more and more scarce in the face of climate change.”

The Quinault Indian Nation is calling for dam removal as the only Tribe with treaty rights in the Skookumchuck River and the larger Chehalis River.