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Outdated dam harming White River salmon

Sep 4th, 2013 • Category: Lead Story, News

Salmon returning to the White River are showing up with gaping wounds and cuts because a diversion dam is not being maintained.

“It isn’t uncommon to see a few injuries – gashes and scars – in fish as they make their way back just because of normal wear and tear,” said Russ Ladley, resource protection manager for the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. “But, in the last few years, we’re seeing more major injuries that are likely shortening the lives of these fish because the dam is breaking down.”

Migrating fish are blocked from moving up the White River by the Buckley diversion dam. The river constantly wears down the wooden dam, leaving boards and steel rebar jutting out. The fish are collected from a trap at the dam and trucked above that and another impassible dam higher in the watershed.

Three species of fish returning to the White River — chinook, steelhead and bull trout — that are being put at risk by the dam are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Five years ago the dam changed hands from Puget Sound Energy to the Cascade Water Alliance. The long-term goal of the alliance is to use the diversion to supply water to suburban King County cities. But, in the meantime, the degrading condition of the dam has gotten worse.

“If the dam isn’t regularly repaired, it can get in pretty bad shape,” Ladley said. “Salmon typically move across a wooden curtain below the dam, getting beat up along the way, before finding their way to the trap.” The dam was originally built in 1911.

“These kinds of injuries aren’t natural,” Ladley said. “These will oftentimes lead to disease and sometimes mortality before the fish can actually spawn.”

Picture 018The injuries to returning salmon are compounded by a bi-yearly backup of pink salmon at the fish trap at the diversion dam. Because the massive return of pinks every other year overwhelms the inadequate fish trap, all salmon species have a hard time making it past the dam.

The risk of a massive die-off increases daily as the pink salmon – along with coho and chinook salmon – continue to crowd below the dam. Crowded conditions below the dam may deplete the oxygen in the water, or the fish could simply run out of spawning energy too soon before they can be moved. “Salmon only have so much energy,” said Russ Ladley, resource protection manager for the Puyallup Tribe. “If they run out of time and energy, then they’ll die before they spawn.”

“We’re risking years of hard work to recovery these runs because we can’t keep a dam in good repair,” Ladley said. “We aren’t sure though how many of those chinook end up dying before they can spawn in the upper river. But more than one is more than enough..”

Information & Education Officer-South Sound
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