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Washington's White River, 8th most endangered in the land

The American Rivers organization put the White River on its annual Most Endangered list. Why? The old Buckley Diversion Dam.
Washington's White River, threatened by an old dam

Washington's White River, threatened by an old dam Credit: Stephanie Sarles/Flickr

With thousands of fish dying in it each year, Puget Sound’s White River has earned the dubious distinction of the country’s eighth-most endangered river, according to last week's press release from the nonprofit organization American Rivers.  

The White River courses down Mt. Rainier on its way to the Puyallup River, which then flows into Puget Sound. Home to wild populations of salmon (Chinook, coho, chum, pink), steelhead and bull trout (several are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act), American Rivers believes that the White River is at a “critical tipping point.” 

Michael Garrity, the Washington State Conservation Director for American Rivers, explained that the "America’s Most Endangered Rivers" are not necessarily "dangerous" or "the worst rivers in America." Rather, they represent rivers that have arrived at a crucial juncture; rivers that, based on decisions made in the near future, can either be ruined or restored. 

The crux of the problem with the White River is the decrepit Buckley Diversion Dam. The 100-year-old dam once diverted water to a (now closed) power plant, but the dam now serves as a way to collect the aforementioned fish and transport them to their spawning grounds a few miles upstream.

Unfortunately, the poor condition of Buckley Dam is derailing its fish transport function. If the fish don’t impale themselves on the dam’s exposed rebar, they are likely to die in the dam’s undersized and outdated fish trap. Those who do manage to survive are often so exhausted or injured by this phase of the journey that their chances of making it to the spawning grounds are slim.

Linda Burgess, chair of the Puyallup River Watershed Council, has been watching this fish trap for years, along with many other local residents and organizations, most especially the Puyallup tribe. “We spend so much money trying to restore fish runs," says Burgess. "It’s almost criminal that there are so many fish here and we’re allowing them to perish.”

Burgess, who is also a member of the Pierce County Biodiversity Alliance, is especially concerned about the White Rivers' endangered status because the lower stretch is an area that is recognized for its biodiversity. “We can’t let that go away,” said Burgess.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates Buckley Dam, is the main party responsible for making changes to the current “fish passage system.” In an open letter to the Corps, American Rivers stated that the National Marine Fisheries Service has been encouraging the Corps to upgrade the fish trap since 2007. According to American Rivers, the Corps has failed to take action.

Local residents and organizations agree. They are hoping the American Rivers press release will push the Corps into action. Michael Garrity from American Rivers said that NOAA fisheries is expected to release a new biological opinion for the Mud Mountain Dam complex compliance plan in the near future. The Mud Mountain complex includes Buckley Dam. Garrity hopes the NOAA opinion and the American Rivers release, along with sustained pressure from a variety of local stakeholders “will speed up" the Corps' response.

According to the Corps, it is already acting, and may be unable to make the process go any faster.

Daniel Johnson, the Army Corps’ project manager of Mud Mountain Dam, was not surprised to see the White River on American Rivers’ Most Endangered list. The Corps, said Johnson, has “been talking to [American Rivers] for about a year,” and, it turns out, working on White River solutions for much longer than that.

The Corps is currently involved in a redesign of the Buckley Dam. According to Johnson, his agency just “finished its part” of the redesign plan and is waiting for the plan to get through to Congress, which Johnson calls “a long trail.” Before the redesign proposal even reaches Congress, it has to go through “a very long process of approvals.”


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 8:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Tribes have money and get over half the fish.

Why not them dig deep, and help out.

Geezer

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 10:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Tough to argue with the Geezer on this one.

Djinn

Posted Tue, Apr 15, 7:43 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm something of a fish advocate myself, but $40 million to replace a 100 hundred year old dam that diverted water to a power plant that is now closed? Why aren't we taking this one down?

Tuck

Posted Tue, Apr 15, 8:38 a.m. Inappropriate

Tuck, the dilapidated Buckley Dam does look like the kind of dam American Rivers might ordinarily work to remove. Buckley's only real remaining purpose is to collect fish for transport above the 432' Mud Mountain Dam a few miles upstream. Mud Mountain's not going anywhere anytime soon because it helps control flooding in Auburn, Sumner, Puyallup, and the Port of Tacoma, so it needs a trap and haul facility somewhere downstream, and that has been at Buckley. Buckley Dam could be removed and a fish trap and haul facility could be built directly below Mud Mountain, but due to tricky hydraulics, road access, and the (still higher) cost of building there, local salmon advocates, tribes, and agencies have all concluded that keeping fish collection where it is is the most effective and economical solution.

Posted Wed, Apr 16, 9:04 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks, Michael. I figured there had to be some valid reason. It would have helped to see that background in the story.

Tuck

Posted Tue, Apr 15, 11:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the details - didn't know all this.

Treker

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 8:12 a.m. Inappropriate

The Puyallup and Muckleshoot Tribes have been involved in salmon restoration efforts on the White River for a very long time. The efforts involve both funding and advocacy. That information should have been included in this piece.

quiller

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 10:36 a.m. Inappropriate

The Corps can fast track a solution by re-allocating existing funds and seeking any additional funding necessary in the next federal fiscal year budget. This ball is in the Corps' HQ's court more than it's within the discretion of the local district, though the district also important responsibilities here. This message has been conveyed repeatedly by a coalition of tribes, local governments, state agencies, and conservationists, but more public pressure would help. Folks who are interested can urge the Corps to take action on American Rivers' website at http://tinyurl.com/lzcph7u

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