Our Views: Historic Progress Made on Flooding and Fish in Chehalis Basin

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Over the last century, state, federal and local efforts to combat chronic and devastating flooding in the Chehalis River Basin have failed. There was lots of fighting and not much agreement.  There have been many studies and not enough action. The same is true of efforts to restore a declining fishery.

That’s no longer the case. Instead, leaders from throughout the basin — from Pe Ell to Grays Harbor — have pushed forward in inspiring fashion toward relief from both flood damage and a decline in aquatic species, most notably salmon.

One year ago, this progress hardly seemed possible. A headline in this very newspaper noted that Gov. Jay Inslee had asked the Office of the Chehalis Basin to pause work on a potential water retention structure on the Chehalis River in order to examine possible alternatives.

But this month, the dam took another step forward. We believe it provides the greatest possible deterrent in the basin’s battle against rising water and the carnage it brings too often to residents along the second largest river basin in the state of Washington.

Last month, the Office of the Chehalis Basin agreed unanimously to advance a $70 million budget that focuses evenly on fish recovery and flood reduction. The funding includes the completion of the intense federal and state environmental impact statements being finalized by the agencies. Also moving forward is funding for local flood projects that have benefitted every community in the Chehalis Basin. Funding for efforts aimed at buoying struggling fish runs is another key part of the package.

Flooding and aquatic species loss have something in common: both are predicted to become dramatically worse in the years ahead with the continued onset of climate change.

The best science shows that action on both the fish and flood fronts are needed now.

The Quinault and Chehalis Tribes have expressed real concerns about potential impacts of the flood facility to fish runs. We understand and respect their concerns and we’re grateful the Tribes have been willing to move the process forward by agreeing to the budget.

We often call it a “dam” but this proposed structure is unlike almost anything that has ever been built. It would hold back water only when major flooding is in the forecast and would otherwise allow the river to run free with open fish passage.

There is also exciting new information coming out from the Flood Zone District which is the project proponent for the dam. Their science team announced that this facility can be built with no net loss of habitat function for fish and the district has made this pledge a condition of construction. This will be reviewed by federal and state resource agencies.

More than 300 mitigation sites have been identified to accomplish this goal. “Any fish impact that may be caused by the dam will be offset by mitigation projects that will have the same kind of function of what exists now,” Project Manager Betsy Dillin said.

If that pledge is affirmed by the resource agencies it will mean that all of the basin-wide work to enhance aquatic species will be entirely on the positive side for salmon and other aquatic species in the basin. It will mean that there really is a powerful win-win: a win for families and communities seeking flood protection and a win for the vital salmon fishery. 

This is indeed an exciting new chapter in the Chehalis River Basin, one that carries enormous potential for improving life in our communities by both reducing flooding and protecting important aquatic species.

There is still a long way to go toward solving both the fish and flood problems. It is worth celebrating the fact that after decades and decades of no positive action, clear progress is being made. 

After years of too many studies and not enough action, we’re thankful to local leaders who have reversed the current and have us headed in the right direction.