Tribes grow impatient with fish-killing dam

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BUCKLEY, Wash. – Right now there are tens of thousands of salmon dying at the base of an outdated dam on the White River east of Tacoma.

Local tribes say the federal government is failing in its responsibility to transport the fish around the dams on this river, and into prime spawning habitat in the Mount Rainier watershed.

The Buckley Diversion Dam is a small dam on the White River about 25 river miles from Tacoma. It was built in 1911 and hasn't really been updated since.

For tens of thousands of pink salmon, it's the end of the road.

Russ Ladley, a fisheries biologist with the Puyallup tribe, stands

in the shallows below the Buckley dam. Credit: Ashley Ahearn

Russ Ladley, a fisheries biologist with the Puyallup tribe, stands in the shallows below the Buckley dam. Dying fish flop around in the shallow water at his feet.

"This is a female," he says, nudging one with his boot. "She's full of eggs."

The green backs of struggling fish churn nearby. Some of them are visibly battered. Others continue to feebly heave themselves onto the lower section of the dam, impaling themselves on old exposed nails.

"This goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week until the fish are just depleted of all their energy reserves," Ladley says, "then the current and the color of the water hides the bodies and they will be scattered downstream."

Ladley estimates that up to 200,000 fish will die here in the next month during the height of the pink salmon run.

There is no hydropower being generated at this small dam. The Army Corps traps fish here and then loads them into trucks and drives them around the Mud Mountain Dam, a 300-foot tall earthen dam 6 miles upriver. It's a technique called "trap-and-haul." And its use here makes the White River one of at least 10 in Washington and Oregon with trap-and-haul facilities, according to the environmental advocacy group, American Rivers. It says more are proposed for the Willamette and Yakima River basins.

Mud Mountain Dam. Credit: Ashley Ahearn

Mud Mountain Dam was built in the early 1940s for flood protection, without any way for fish to get around it.

Without this smaller diversion dam there would be no way to trap the fish to transport them upriver, but this facility hasn't been updated since the 1940s and the fish kills have gotten worse in the last decade as pink salmon have started coming up the White river by the hundreds of thousands.

Scientists aren't exactly sure why the pink salmon are rebounding in Puget Sound, but Ladley says this old "trap-and-haul" facility can't handle all of them, nor is it advanced enough to allow fisheries managers to sort out the endangered or threatened chinook, steelhead and bull trout that also come up this river.

"These pink runs have come out of nowhere and they've overwhelmed the system," he says. "They're so abundant that they can inhibit passage of other species as well and they do, the coho, chinook that are also trying to get upstream. There are more fish here now than the Corps can effectively move."

Twelve miles upriver from where Ladley was standing, a truck backs up to a long metal chute and opens its rear hatch, releasing 1,200 gallons of water and roughly 300 pink salmon.

These fish are some of the lucky survivors of the barrier dam downstream. They're being released into the upper reaches of the White River, free to spawn anywhere from here up to the foothills of Mount Rainier.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spends an extra $600,000 moving the massive influx of pink salmon around their dam. The agency has added four more trucks to move fish 24 hours a day, but they're not getting all the fish.

"We're at our capacity," says Fred Goetz, a fisheries biologist with the Army Corps. "If there are more we're going to do our best to move that backlog."

Fred Goetz, a fisheries biologist with the Army Corps.

The corps acknowledges the so-called trap-and-haul facility isn't up to the task of moving all the fish that come back to this river now. Goetz explains the pink salmon runs only happen every other year, and in the past decade their numbers have skyrocketed in the White River. He calls it a "one-of-a-kind phenomenon" in the last 100 years in Puget Sound. In 2001 there were no pinks in the Green River. Then in 2009 there were 3 million. In 2011 there were 800,000 pinks that returned to that river.

"So the up and down of this kind of salmon run is one of the most unpredictable we've ever seen," Goetz says.

And that makes it hard to decide how to design a fish-trapping facility. Do you make it so it can handle the big years, or the average years?

The Corps has haggled over the design for the dam and trap with the local tribes for the past 10 years. The tribes are impatient and every odd year, like this one, tens of thousands of salmon die waiting to be transported upriver.Fully replacing the facility would cost close to $80 million. Goetz says the corps doesn't have that kind of money right now. Instead it hopes to spend about half that amount and replace the old dam, not the fish trap.

"We're doing everything we can right now," Goetz says, "especially when we don't have a lot of funding and we may not see very much in the future as well."

The Muckleshoot and Puyallup tribes say replacing the dam isn't enough. The old fish trap also needs to be replaced. Right now endangered chinook and bull trout get mixed in with the hundreds of thousands of pink salmon in the river. The old trap does not provide a way to separate the endangered species from the rest of the fish or to filter out hatchery fish from wild fish.

The trap at Buckley Dam has not been updated since the 1940s.

With the massive influx of pink salmon, managers can't separate out the endangered chinook,teelhead and bulltrout from the pinks.

Don Jerry, a member of the Muckleshoot tribe who serves on the tribal fish commission, stands next to the Buckley diversion dam.

"We need to take care of them, and the federal government isn't doing their part," he says. "They're the ones that caused the problems with the decline of the salmon. We're left with the burden of trying to rebuild it."

The Army Corps expects that it could take up to eight years for this dam to be replaced, without a new trapping facility included.

The tribe and other parties are considering litigation under the Endangered Species Act.

This story originally appeared through the EarthFix public media collaboration.