While one Plateau project to protect endangered fish makes headway on the White River, federal officials have ordered a similar project not too many miles away on the Green River.
The projects have one major thing in common, aside from the goal of saving fish and improving the entire aquatic ecosystem: the common denominator is money — and a lot of it. Between the two, the price tag reaches hundreds of millions of dollars.
The current news involves the Green River and, most specifically, a stretch of the river flowing northeast of Enumclaw.
On Feb. 15, fisheries officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a formal “biological opinion,” mandating action that will save salmon and steelhead heading downstream on the Green. Known in governmental circles as a BiOp, the order requires the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete a downstream fish passage facility at Howard A. Hanson Dam.
The action by NOAA is crucial because it is needed to secure Congressional funding. According to the Corps’ Bill Dowell, federal money will not flow until a BiOp is issued.
The downstream project – which will take years to finish – aims to provide critical habitat for Puget Sound Chinook salmon and steelhead. Both are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The order reaches beyond just the upper stretches of the Green River. It also addresses the Endangered Species Act-listed southern resident killer whales, the only endangered killer whale population in the United States. Chinook salmon are the orca’s primary food source, so federal agencies are intent on improving the Chinook’s spawning and rearing habitat.
Almost half of the Green River’s suitable and historical habitat, about 100 river and stream miles, is found above Howard Hanson Dam and a nearby diversion dam operated by Tacoma Water. Tacoma’s diversion dam was built 50 years before Howard Hanson and channels water from the Green River to its customers.
Salmon and steelhead already have a way to get to their upstream spawning grounds, courtesy of a trap-and-release facility operated by Tacoma Water. The same things happens on the White River between Buckley and Enumclaw; there, it’s the Corps of Engineers that operates a trap-and-release facility. Salmon are collected, dropped into tanker trucks and hauled to a point miles above Mud Mountain Dam, where they are released back into the White River.
The notion of getting fish downstream, below Howard Hanson Dam, is nothing new. A project received Congressional funding in 1999 and work began in 2003. But the entire effort was mothballed in 2011 when it was determined projected costs would exceed authorized funding limits.
A major difference this time around, Dowell pointed out, is the Endangered Species Act. Twenty years ago, neither Chinook salmon nor steelhead had ESA protection.
Dowell said the work done two decades ago could still come into play, helping to reduce the project cost. Scrapping everything and starting from scratch will likely be a last option, he added.
While the goals are similar on the two regional rivers, the needs are clearly different. The BiOp issued Feb. 15 calls for a downstream passage on the Green River, but that is not needed on the White. The difference, Dowell said, is in the two dams and the water behind them. Mud Mountain is a “run of river” facility that allows fish to pass through unimpeded. But Howard Hanson creates a reservoir that varies in depth depending upon time of year and whether water is being held back or released.
The BiOp issued by NOAA was a needed step in the funding process, but money is still the biggest question mark. Specific requests have not been made but the first order of business, Dowell said, will be seeking money for early planning. Much has changed during the past couple of decades, he said, and the original plan for the Green River may no longer be the best option. Technology has provided addition opportunities for saving fish.
Eventually, costs will climb to noteworthy levels. The trap-and-release system currently under way on the White River has a price tag of $112 million. That is just for construction and does not include earlier planning and design work.
READY TO TACKLE THE GREEN RIVER
For its part, the Army Corps of Engineers sounds ready to go.
“Improving fish passage at Howard Hanson Dam is a priority for the Corps,” Seattle District Commander Col. Mark Geraldi said. “This is a project we’ve been working on.” The Feb. 15 BiOp, he said, “provides us crucial guidance and design criteria to follow as we forge ahead.”
Howard Hanson Dam was built in 1961 and is designed to accomplish several tasks, including flood risk management, fish conservation, water supply and ecosystem restoration. The last three items are balanced while the reservoir elevation fluctuates about 100 feet spring through fall. Juvenile Chinook salmon tend to stay in the surface water during outmigration, so a downstream fish passage facility will have to collect fish at a variety of elevations as the reservoir changes.
“This creates a number of challenges when designing and constructing a fish passage project,” Geraldi pointed out. “Science has progressed and there are now projects with similar, though not exact, conditions we can study. We’ll take full advantage of the latest science as we reevaluate the previous design and move forward.”
For its part on the Green River, Tacoma Water is poised to assist the Corps in completing the downstream passage facility. Both organizations have also been working together to complete fish habitat projects upstream in anticipation of salmon being returned to the watershed Tacoma Water oversees above Howard Hanson Dam.
“We know from experience that reopening upstream access to important spawning and rearing habitat makes a world of difference for fish,” said NOAA’s Kim Kratz. He is with the Oregon/Washington Coastal Office in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region and notes that the Green River project should boost fish populations, support tribal treaty fishing rights and benefit endangered killer whales.
WORK ON THE WHITE RIVER MOVING AHEAD
Work on the White River fish passage is progressing well, Dowell said. Currently, efforts are on the Buckley side of the river and water is flowing freely along the Enumclaw shore. By summer, Dowell said, work crews will “flip the river,” meaning construction will take place on the Enumclaw side and the White will flow along the Buckley riverbank.
When everything is complete, a new fish passage will be accessed from the north side of the river instead of Buckley.
The current fish passage was built in the 1940s and is outdated and undersized for current fish runs.