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Aug. 12, 2022

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‘Big victory’ for salmon habitat: Fish passage at dam on Green River gets $220M boost

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Fish passage at the Howard Hanson Dam east of Auburn has received a $220 million federal funding boost that will help unlock more than 100 miles of salmon habitat on the Upper Green River.

The money was secured as a priority project for the Army Corps of Engineers under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray announced Monday. Passed last summer, the bill President Joe Biden signed in November authorized $1 trillion in spending on roads, bridges, high speed internet, ports, dams, waterways, drinking water infrastructure and more across the country.

Murray, a Democrat, has been pressing the Corps, which built and operates the earthen embankment dam, to make fish passage a priority.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, charged with both salmon and orca recovery, ordered in 2019 that fish passage be operational at the dam no later than 2030. Present operation of the dam without fish passage jeopardizes the survival of both threatened Puget Sound Chinook and endangered southern resident orcas, the agency found.

“My job is to make sure the federal government understands that local priorities like the Howard Hanson Dam need to be federal priorities,” Murray said in a news release.

“This funding will go a long way in our fight to save the salmon, opening up miles of critical habitat,” she said. “This is a big victory for the Muckleshoot Tribe, our salmon and orca, the entire Puget Sound, and all of Washington state.”

The tribe has treaty-protected fishing rights on the Green River, which flows into the Duwamish, and has invested heavily in salmon recovery.

Rep. Kim Schrier, a Sammamish Democrat, also celebrated support for the project.

“I am over the moon excited,” Schrier said in an interview. “It is so incredibly gratifying that something we have been pushing so hard for got funded. It checks all the boxes: it’s bipartisan, and it’s a huge environmental win.”

Completed in 1962, the dam is intended to reduce flooding and provide flows for salmon, municipal water supply and ecosystem restoration. It has prevented $21 billion in flood damage in the Green River Valley, according to the Corps.

Chinook, coho and steelhead have been blocked from access to the Upper Green since the Tacoma Headworks Diversion Dam first went into operation in 1913 to supply water for Tacoma.

The diversion dam is just 3 miles downstream from the Howard Hanson Dam, and has already been improved with a trap for adult fish passage. Fish captured in the trap will be trucked above the dams to the upper watershed, once passage for juveniles is operational at Howard Hanson.

The fish-passage project could open even more habitat for Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead than the celebrated Elwha Dam removal project, the largest in the world. The Howard Hanson Dam would remain intact while passage doubles the amount of spawning habitat available to salmon and steelhead in the watershed — and open all of the best of it for the first time in more than a century.

The Green is one of the most important salmon rivers in Puget Sound, and a prime Chinook producer for southern resident orcas. Lack of regularly available, adequate salmon is a one of several factors driving the orcas to extinction, scientists have determined. Getting salmon back into the Upper Green has been singled out by salmon advocates as the biggest potential boost for salmon production in Central Puget Sound — and therefore could help save the whales.

The project also is very important for Tacoma Public Utilities and other local government partners that already have invested more than $400 million in water-system improvements, anticipating additional water supply that would be available upon completion of the project.

The dam was part of a more than centurylong effort, still underway, to tame floods in the Green-Duwamish watershed, which includes the cities of Tukwila, Renton, Kent and Auburn; the second-largest warehousing district on the West Coast; and industrial development throughout the Duwamish Waterway in Seattle.

There is no political controversy about providing passage for salmon at the dam. Rather, the problem has been getting the work done on time, and on budget.

The project is complex. Juvenile salmon migrate near the surface of the water column — which fluctuates in height by as much as 100 feet during the spring migration. Collecting fragile baby fish from such a moving target is a big design challenge.

The Corps began construction on passage at the dam in 2003. But work stopped in 2011, when the Corps projected its spending was going to balloon past what Congress had authorized. The Corps spent about $108 million, including a 100-foot-deep excavation.

The project stalled so long, the Corps had to secure new authorization from Congress to reboot planning for the project. At the urging of the Washington congressional delegation, the agency in 2020 set aside $3 million in its work plan to develop a design and budget for the project — which now has funding to proceed.

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