On March 7, a huge, custom-made valve opened in Tacoma Power's Cushman Dam No. 2, and 240 cubic feet of water per second rushed down the bed of the North Fork Skokomish River — less than 30 percent of the river's natural flow, but more water than anyone had seen there since 1930, when the city of Tacoma completed its two-dam Cushman project to provide its citizens with cheap electric power.
American Rivers called the release "a crucial step in restoring the river's health." Organization officials said that for "approximately 50 years, Tacoma Power totally dewatered the river below the project during low-flow periods. More recently, the company has left only a trickle of water flowing in the North Fork Skokomish."
Once upon a time, the North Fork provided nearly half the flow of the mainstem Skokomish River, but it's easy to see that's no longer true: If you drive scenic Route 101 north along the west shore of Hood Canal, you cross a nondescript metal bridge across the dark, placid Skokomish and, a little farther up the road, you pass a pale, pre-World War II, Art Deco power plant with high, arched windows along the front and huge pipes slanting steeply down the mountainside behind. Only about half the natural flow of the Skokomish runs under that highway bridge. The North Fork comes down through the pipes to the power plant, generates cheap power for the City of Tacoma, then is piped out into Hood Canal.
Upstream, Cushman Dam No. 1 backs water up in scenic Lake Cushman, at the edge of Olympic National Park, and Dam No. 2 backs it up in Lake Kokanee, from which it descends through the pipes.
"The [Cushman] Project destroyed the salmon and steelhead productivity of what the Washington Department of Fisheries called 'among the most important and valuable food salmon spawning streams in the State of Washington,'" Bruce Brown writes in Mountain in the Clouds. In 1924, Tacoma obtained a federal license to flood 8.8 acres of federal land. It then "used the license as a pretext to build unlicensed, unregulated hydroelectric facilities, including two dams, two reservoirs, diversion works, two power houses, transmission lines, and appurtenances; to flood 30-plus acres of federal land within a total project area of about 4700 acres; and to divert the entire North Fork Skokomish River from its watershed."
Tacoma completed the first dam in 1926, the second in 1930. The first was finished when the great federal dams on the Colorado and Columbia still lay years in the future — although right around the time Seattle was building its own dams on the Skagit — and a 275-foot concrete power dam was considered a big deal; President Calvin Coolidge himself pressed a button in the White House to start the generating plant.
Attitudes were very different back in the 1920s, concedes Seattle attorney Mason Morisset, who represents the Skokomish Tribal Nation, but even by the standards of the 1920s, making a whole river disappear was "unbelievable." Tacoma, he says, "got away with murder." Brown writes about the concern of state fisheries officials, but virtually no one else seemed to care.
At the time, of course, people valued electric power more than they valued free-flowing rivers. Society seemed to have plenty of water, plenty of fish, but it didn't have plenty of electricity.
However, by the time Tacoma's license came up for renewal in 1974 (the city wanted to replace its expired "minor part" license with one that would cover the entire project), laws and attitudes had changed. Over the past 30-odd years, the tribe, various state and federal agencies, and environmental groups have all gotten into the act.
In separate legal action, the tribe has sued over loss of land, loss of fishing opportunities, and flood damage. (Without water from the North Fork to flush it out, sediment — much of it from eroded clearcuts and logging roads — has built up in the mainstem Skokomish, raising the level of the river bed and creating frequent floods.) Relicensing negotiations drag on.
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