SEATTLE — Projects to help fish navigate Washington’s rivers could get a boost of nearly $40 million from the federal government.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday announced $105 million for 36 new fish passage projects across the U.S., including money for culvert and dam removal projects, and studies that would aim to alleviate barriers to fish passage in the Olympic Peninsula, Puget Sound region, Yakima basin and Columbia River watershed.
The funding recommendation will need final approval by NOAA, according to an agency spokesperson. No timeline for the approval was given. The money was allocated to NOAA from last year’s $1 trillion infrastructure law.
Projects that could benefit include the Kwoneesum Dam removal by the Cowlitz tribe and partners, planning for the Enloe Dam removal on the Similkameen River, and the Tulalip Tribes’ projects to remove 16 fish passage barriers in the Snohomish River basin.
The projects have the potential to open hundreds of miles of habitat for steelhead trout, Chinook, coho and chum salmon, some listed under the Endangered Species Act.
“The projects supported by this funding will help communities adapt to a changing climate by supporting healthy ecosystems and infrastructure that works for people and fish,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said in a statement.
The Tulalip Tribes could receive nearly $10 million to lead projects in partnership with Snohomish County and the Snohomish Conservation District, Tulalip tribal Chairperson Teri Gobin said.
When you open the habitat back up, she said, the fish find their way back.
The Tulalip Tribes were instrumental in the $2 million project to remove the 10-foot-high water diversion dam on the Pilchuck River in 2020. The century-old wall became too expensive to operate for water supply for the city of Snohomish.
That project restored some 37 miles of habitat. It’s not just for the tribes, Gobin said. These projects build flood resilience and biodiversity and help the whole community.
“There’s not a time that you don’t go to a community in Puget Sound — you can be in Des Moines, you can be in Edmonds, you could be in Shoreline,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said, “and people will tell you: ‘When I used to come across this stream, the salmon were so thick, you could almost walk across it.’ That’s why we worked so hard on legislation to try to open up all these things that have had obstructions to fish passage.”
Last year, Cantwell and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., secured around $2.9 billion in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for salmon and ecosystem restoration programs, reportedly the largest investment in salmon recovery in history.
The new funds announced Wednesday could support planning and construction of 16 fish barrier removal projects in the Snohomish River basin, reconnecting more than 30 miles of upstream habitat.
Gobin said the tribes’ biologists have built on decades of research to identify the best chances at salmon recovery. “We’ll just keep plugging away and try to free up the salmon habitat,” she said Wednesday.
A roughly 50-foot-tall embankment dam sits on Wildboy Creek, a tributary to the West Fork Washougal River in the Columbia River watershed.
The Camp Fire Girls, now Camp Fire, built the dam in the 1960s to make a recreational lake and camp, in the process disconnecting about 6.5 miles of habitat for Endangered Species Act-listed Lower Columbia steelhead and coho salmon.
The $2.6 million award announced Wednesday could help the Cowlitz tribe unlock the creek for the fish.
The tribe has finished the final design and secured permits for dam removal, and completed habitat restoration planning, according to Cantwell’s office.
In Okanogan County, near the Canadian border, the century-old Enloe Dam that once generated hydropower has sat lifeless on the Similkameen River since the late 1950s.
Chief Keith Crow of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band has been involved in conversations about taking the dam down since he entered leadership in 2013.
“It’s been the goal for some time,” he said.
Both the Colville and Similkameen tribal governments have adopted resolutions in favor of restoring the river to its natural state by removing the dam.
There’s a collection of archival photos at the museum in the nearby town of Oroville. Crow said he hopes to see the river one day return to that natural state.
Since those photos were taken, a dam was built to power mining camps. In the 1920s, it was rebuilt as a concrete dam. The dam generated only about 3 megawatts, depending on river flows.
When cheaper power became available in 1958, the Okanogan County Public Utility District decided the dam was no longer economical and shut down generation.
Now the mining past plagues efforts to take the dam down. In 1972, researchers found approximately 2.4 million tons of sediment backed up in the reservoir, some of which may be contaminated from decades of mining upstream.
Trout Unlimited was selected to receive more than $2 million to study and plan for dam removal while coordinating with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Similkameen Indian Band and the Okanagan Nation Alliance.
As dams across the country age past their useful lives, the pace of dam removal is accelerating. No state has taken down more big dams than Washington, for the benefit of salmon as well as the endangered southern resident orcas that feed on them.
Breaching the four Lower Snake River Dams is not an option yet, according to a joint report on dam removal and salmon recovery that came out this summer from Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Murray.
The dam removal projects selected for this round of grant funding had not generated electricity in decades, or never were hydropower facilities.
“It’s almost like there’s been this pent-up desire to remove some of these dams to help bring fish back,” NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Janet Coit said. “… We’re so excited.”