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

Washington's White River, threatened by an old dam Credit: 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 If the fish don’t impale themselves on the dam’s exposed rebar, they are likely to die in the dam’s undersized and outdated fish trap.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.”

The replacement dam proposal is a roughly $40 million project. (Johnson said cost estimates will get more accurate as the project moves along.) If approved, the Buckley Dam redesign would likely begin in 2016 and the new dam would be operational in 2021 or 2022.

The Corps does have plans in place for immediate action, though. Agency teams will make some necessary repairs, such as removing the rebar, and do their best to reduce the harm to fish during the next Pink Salmon run. “We are working with Cascade Water Alliance to get them the funding they need for salmon recovery efforts,” said Johnson.  

Even if the Corps had the power to fast track the Buckley Dam makeover, it would solve only part of the problem. Perhaps more important is opening and strengthening the lines of communication between local communities, government and all the parties in-between.

The recent American Rivers' designation and press release won't solve the White River's problems. But it does help raise the profile of this struggling waterway and it shines a light on a set of government and environmental issues that desperately need our attention.

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