BELLINGHAM — Two years after the $20 million removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack dam, salmon have safe passage through the river, but none have been seen — so now local tribes and wildlife officials are planning a monitoring program to find them.
One of the major reasons to remove the dam was to restore the habitat of salmon and other fish species that once called the watershed home. Before removal, a computer model of the river estimated a 30% increase in Chinook salmon populations and the increased abundance of other fish species after the dam was removed. So far, monitoring efforts of the river have not shown evidence of fish passage or population increases.
According to 2003 data used in the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan, published in 2007, adult spawners of natural origin in the North and Middle Fork Nooksack were about 3,500. Returning adults to that watershed only numbered around 200 in the same year.
Monitoring the number of fish is not an exact science, April McEwen, river restoration project manager with American Rivers, said in an email interview with The Bellingham Herald. She said there are ranges and uncertainties in the measurements that make exact numbers of fish difficult to quantify. Still, there was no “formal” expectation of fish passage at this point after the dam removal.
“Given that fish had been kept out of the upper watershed for so long (since dam construction), the expectation is the fisheries managers would most likely have to reintroduce fish to the upper watershed, perhaps supplemented with some hatchery program fish,” she said.
McEwen said she was not aware of any plan to reintroduce fish to the watershed yet.
The dam stood about 7 miles southeast of Deming, where it intermittently diverted water to Bellingham. Water was diverted from the Middle Fork to Lake Whatcom, then used for drinking and industry. But, when the dam was built in the ‘60s, there was no way for salmon and other fish species to scale its walls.
The dam cut off 16 miles of the Middle Fork. Fish could not travel up the river’s waters to spawn, leaving some to “bump their noses” against the dam while attempting to go upstream, Joel Ingram, habitat biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in a telephone interview with The Herald.
“It’s going to take several cycles (of spawning) in order for us to see a really big jump in overall abundance,” Ingram said.
Ingram said the now-unblocked areas of the Nooksack watershed are in nearly pristine condition. Meaning there are plenty of areas for fish to swim upstream and spawn.
“We know where these habitats are that fish key in on,” Ingram said.
Knowing where fish will spawn is important for a more robust monitoring effort set to launch in the spring. Ingram said funding is through a grant provided by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, a portion of the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office. The requested $60,000 has been approved locally and is expected to be contracted and funded by the state this winter, he said. A match of $12,000 is being provided by the project sponsor — the Lummi Natural Resources Department.
The monitoring will be done by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Lummi Nation and Nooksack tribe. Teams will venture out once a week during spawning seasons to ideal habitats and perform “spot checks” looking for evidence of fish populations and spawning. Evidence could include the presence of “reds” and salmon carcasses in the gravel around spawning habitats.
Ingram said the removal of the dam had been in discussion at least 20 years before it was removed. However, several requirements needed to be met.
Community cooperation, technical planning and funding were all needed before the construction phase could begin, McEwen, the river restoration project manager said.
She said removing a dam is not losing an asset. Instead, dam removal diversifies the river’s use in a community, restoring what was once there before dam construction.
But, dam removal is only part of the process when restoring the river and fish habitat.
“Just like people, fish need water, food, and a healthy environment that meets their specific needs,” McEwen said. “Removing a dam removes its ability to disrupt natural ecological processes (for the fish).”
McEwen said additional projects such as the restoration of riparian forests, river channels, and recreational areas are also a part of dam removal projects. According to the city of Bellingham, all elements of the Middle Fork dam removal project were completed in 2022. Part of the process after removal was re-grading the river and creating boulder dams to allow adequate fish passage. Ingram said the river now meets all fish passage criteria, meaning fish can voluntarily pass through the channel.
“It will (increase the overall abundance of salmon), but it’s not a silver bullet,” Ingram said. “There’s a lot of salmon restoration projects going on here in the Nooksack and other Pacific Northwest regions.”
The project required about $20 million to complete, with funds coming from both public and private sectors. More than half of the money was provided by the state of Washington.