Puget Sound dam jeopardizing salmon, endangered orcas

SOUTH KING COUNTY, Wash. -- The Green River is cut in half by two dams that keep adult salmon from going upstream to spawn and juveniles from migrating down to the ocean. The current state of one of the dams is threatening three endangered species.

The first dam has been blocking fish habitat for about a century. Tacoma Headworks Diversion Dam east of Ravensdale is how the City of Tacoma gets its water. Tacoma Water was tasked with building an upstream trap-and-haul facility and finished construction in 2005.

The facility should allow Tacoma Water to transport adult salmon above its dam and Howard A. Hanson Dam, which is three miles upstream. To this day, that hasn't happened because the Howard Hanson dam is incomplete.

The primary purpose of Howard Hanson is flood control. Twenty years ago, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fix up the dam, the habitat around it and build a downstream fish passage facility. Congress appropriated $138 million to do it all and the Army Corps got to work.

The last step was that fish passage facility. By 2011, they had dug 100 feet deep but to finish the project, they would have gone over budget. By law, they had to stop construction and reassess. There has been no change to the facility since.

In February, NOAA Fisheries issued a rare jeopardy finding for the Howard Hanson dam. What does that mean?

"The dam, as it is, would jeopardize the continued existence of Chinook salmon, Puget Sound steelhead and southern resident killer whales," said Jennifer Quan, NOAA Fisheries Branch Chief for Central Puget Sound.

NOAA Fisheries said the Army Corps must complete the facility. But now, in 2019, the facility they planned to build won't cut it. In 2000, NOAA Fisheries told them only 65 percent of fish needed to survive through the dam. Now, they have to reach 95 percent survival.

"It'll be 10 or 12 years before we have an operational facility," said Daniel Johnson, Seattle Civil Works Section Chief for the Army Corps.

Until that happens, Tacoma Water is unable to bring those adults upstream to spawn.

"At the point where we do have our downstream fish passage facility operational, it'll just about double the available habitat for the fish," Johnson said.

That, of course, is if Congress authorizes the project and appropriates the roughly $100 million it'll take to do it.

"We have to tell them the right story that is the most compelling reason for them to say yes," Johnson said.

The Seattle office will be competing with Army Corps projects across the country when it comes to funding. But NOAA Fisheries 'jeopardy finding' should help. It worked for the Mud Mountain Dam on the White River near Enumclaw.

There, an old trap-and-haul facility that has functioned since 1948 has been overwhelmed with the fish trying to swim upstream to spawn. The upgrade, which has been approved and is under construction, will cost $185 million.

The old facility, lacking capacity, would fail to transport about a million fish each year.

"Those fish, they stay in the river, they don't get upstream to spawn, they're not where they want to be and likely, most of them don't spawn at all," Johnson said.

The new facility will move 1.2 million fish in half the time. It's not all the fish looking to go upstream, but it's a compromise considering the cost.

"Every fish is important in the bigger picture so each incremental change that we can be a part of helps toward the bigger picture," Johnson said. "This isn't the only thing we have going on."

Across the Puget Sound, there are plenty of projects to make a difference.

The Army Corps is reconsidering its master plans for both Howard Hanson and Mud Mountain dams. The public has until Wednesday, May 15, to ask questions and give input.

You can email nwsmasterplan@usace.army.mil and click here for more information on those master plans.