Members of Congress, tribal chiefs and dozens of other local leaders gathered at the Howard Hanson Dam to celebrate the relaunch of the decades-delayed project to bring salmon back to the upper Green River watershed.
Stakeholders gathered Aug. 30 to answer questions from the press at the dam, which holds the Howard Hanson Reservoir at Eagle Gorge.
The $855 million project will reintroduce endangered salmon to their historic habitat, helping iconic fish increase in numbers and viability. This, in turn, will restore food for wildlife like endangered bears, eagles, and killer whales, and help fulfill U.S. obligations to tribes like the Muckleshoot to provide fishing access and on the hunt.
Muckleshoot Tribal Council Chairman Jaison Elkins thanked U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, D-8th District, for their work on behalf of the project and shared the value that a vital salmon population holds for the tribe.
“Muckleshoot people are salmon people,” Elkins said. “Salmon provide us with physical, cultural and spiritual sustenance…and that’s why I’m here today to support and protect future salmon runs.”
The Muckleshoot have rights under two treaties with the United States: the Treaty of Medicine Creek, signed in 1854, and the Treaty of Point Elliott, signed in 1855, which, among other things, recognizes and guarantees traditional hunting rights. and fishing for several tribes in the Puget Sound region in exchange for millions of acres of territory. Muckleshoot Reserve was established in 1857.
“It seems like something the federal government should stand for,” Elkins said. “For us to be Indians. To live well. …Despite treaty assurances, our rights have always been threatened by climate change, man-made barriers to spawning, such as dams, and lack of federal investment in the preservation and protection of our fish course. The right to fish, for which our ancestors fought so hard, is meaningless if there are no fish in the rivers.
The fishway project got a $220 million boost this spring, negotiated by Washington congressmen, as part of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill approved by Congress. and signed by President Joe Biden last year. Murray advocated for the project for years, securing $44 million for dam repairs in 2010.
“We’re talking about opening up another 100 miles of salmon habitat through the fish passage that we’re creating here,” Murray said. “This funding was only made possible because we passed the bipartisan infrastructure law.”
The project could receive another tranche of money through the Water Resources Development Act, passed by the US Senate last month. Both houses will need to pass the bill for it to become law.
The project will be built by the US Army Corp of Engineers, but it was shaped with the help of many groups, including tribes. Jaime Pinkham, the Army’s principal deputy assistant secretary for civilian works, praised the collaboration.
“The tribes have helped design and operate fish passage facilities on these waters and rivers, (and) that’s just a change in how we’ve worked in the past,” Pinkham said. “The lessons we learned at Mud Mountain (Dam), we learned with the tribes.”
Tribes were at the table for decision-making both in a legal, political, environmental and scientific sense, Pinkham said, rather than being relegated to watching from the sidelines.
“When the Army Corps of Engineers sought help in designing the fish passage facility at Mud Mountain Dam, they didn’t have to look far,” Pinkham said. “They could look to the capacity that the tribes have built, the expertise. So you see the tribes coming together not just as passive recipients of the fishery, but as active stewards. And that’s a change.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
The Howard Hanson Dam and its smaller diversion dam three miles downstream were built in 1962 and 1912, respectively, to limit frequent flooding in the Green River Valley (including Auburn, Kent, Renton, and Tukwila) and to accumulate water to increase the river in the dry season. The diversion dam also provides drinking water to the Tacoma area.
The dams have achieved all of these goals, but at a high cost: migrating salmon and rainbow trout, in search of their ancestral spawning grounds at Eagle Gorge, now come up against a gray concrete wall. Fish species have suffered huge population declines due to habitat loss, climate change and environmental pollution.
Enclosed behind the Howard Hanson is over 100 additional miles of high quality spawning and rearing habitat for fish in the river’s watershed, much of it untouched by human development.
Unlocking that upper watershed above that dam to fish would be a game-changer for endangered Puget Sound chinook salmon and rainbow trout, NOAA scientists said. And the fate of these fish is closely tied to that of the endangered southern resident killer whales, or orcas, that feed on these fish.
The watershed is extremely valuable to any fish that might use it, but especially rainbow salmon and coho salmon, which travel farther upstream than their Chinook and Chum cousins.
The Howard Hanson project, authorized by Congress in 1999, sought to both increase the dam’s water storage to more than 30,000 acre-feet, which would help its flood control and water management capabilities. water, and to improve the prospects for fish in the river by giving them passage through the dams. But it stopped a decade ago when projected costs began to exceed funding limits authorized by Congress.
In 2019, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) directed the Corps to figure it out and complete the fish passage facility no later than 2030. A year later, all members of Congress from the state of Washington gathered to formally request the Army Corps to prioritize salmon passage at the dam.
Tacoma Utilities already has an operational trap and haul system to bring fish past the two dams, and they can bring fish back into the diversion dam. The only problem that remains is that the fish cannot yet swim from the main dam, partly due to a tricky technical challenge.
The water level at Howard Hanson Dam fluctuates over 100 feet depending on season and weather. A tunnel at the bottom of the dam theoretically allows passage, but salmon like to swim close to the top of the water, and diving so deep to find the passage goes against their hard-wired instincts.
So the new design will meet the fish more than half way – literally. Engineers will build five large openings to the tunnel, stacked on top of each other, so that fish always have an entry point, regardless of the surface of the water. This is what engineers hope to have achieved by 2030.
If all goes according to plan this time around, the Corps will have a design completed in three and a half years, and after that only another four years of construction. The good news is that much of the water storage work is already done, and once the fish passage facility is complete, the Corps plans to add even more water storage to the dam. .