Dam removals like Pilchuck, Nooksack clearing way for salmon survival

For nearly a century salmon swimming upstream on the Pilchuck River have literally hit a concrete wall, blocking them from 37 miles of historic habitat. 

“They’d hit against the dam and you could hear their bodies slapping against the dam, and it was really kind of a sad thing to watch,” said Brett Shattuck, research ecologist for Tulip Tribes. 

Shattuck is seeing years of hard work come to life at the Pilchuck River Dam this week as construction crews prepare to dismantle it piece by piece. 

The diversion dam used to supply water to the City of Snohomish, which it no longer uses. Nearby, a plaque bearing the construction year, 1931, reads, “When we build let us think that we build forever.”

The plaque will likely stay. The dam will not.

“All we’re doing is removing a bunch of concrete that has no purpose, it’s just a dam that does nothing,” Shattuck said.

Nothing now, except harming fish. Last year Shattuck said the Pilchuck River saw some of its worst salmon returns, he said he hopes removing the dam will bring rapid results. 

“The gains when it comes to fish being able to access the upstream habitat is going to happen almost immediately,” he said. “That’s the benefit of these barrier removal projects and dam removal projects is those fish get to go upstream right away.”

About two hours north, at Middle Fork Nooksack River, another dam is being demolished this week. That makes two projects happening simultaneously with the promise of benefiting the salmon that spawn there and the endangered orcas that need healthy salmon populations to thrive themselves. 

“If we want to see these populations continue to exist…we need to invest in these things because they’re not here without our help,” Shattuck said. 

While the upstream benefits to salmon may be immediate, the downstream benefits to orcas will take a few more years. 

Environmentalists say it’s critical to keep investing in habitat projects like removing the Pilchuck River Dam, but with the effect COVID-19 is having on the economy, some worry money for future projects could dry up when the need for restoration is urgent.