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News / Northwest

WA salmon passage projects are getting more than $75 million

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: May 30, 2024, 8:41am

Seals waiting to dine on steelhead in Hood Canal. A reflective pool for the state Capitol that’s become algae soup. An abandoned railroad crossing blocking a tributary of the Cowlitz River.

Migrating salmon and steelhead face all kinds of obstacles littered throughout Washington. But piece by piece, those barriers will be removed, thanks in part to nearly $75 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act.

Nearly $40 million of the funding announced will go to nine projects led by tribal nations, including tearing out a dam, culverts and other barriers to fish passage in rivers and streams from the Skagit to the Klickitat.

Another four projects, including an effort to reconnect 125 river miles on the western Olympic Peninsula, received nearly $36 million.

The money will support projects working to free up miles of habitat for multiple species of steelhead and Pacific salmon, including those listed under the Endangered Species Act.

“Habitat restoration works, and these projects will help boost the salmon and steelhead runs our tribes and our regional economy depend on,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, who helped usher the funding through Congress, said in a statement.

Investing in salmon recovery

Cantwell, chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, secured nearly $3 billion in the infrastructure law for salmon and ecosystem restoration programs, representing the single largest investment in salmon recovery in history, according to her office.

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced $240 million for 46 fish passage projects across the U.S., including the pot of money heading Washington’s way. The projects were selected from applications submitted to two competitions that NOAA Fisheries announced last year. About 40% of the recommended projects were led or supported by tribes.

This announcement builds on the nearly $40 million awarded for Washington projects in the first round of funding in 2022. There will be one more round of funding for NOAA fish passage barrier removal projects under the infrastructure law.

Removing barriers

The Tulalip Tribes will receive more than $20 million to remove a series of fish passage barriers on streams in the Stillaguamish and Snohomish basins, opening up habitat for threatened Puget Sound Chinook, steelhead and coho, and reducing the threat of flooding in local communities.

The Tulalip Tribes were instrumental in the $2 million project to tear down the 10-foot-high water diversion dam on the Pilchuck River in 2020. The century-old wall, used to create a water supply for the city of Snohomish, became too expensive to maintain.

Taking out the dam restored some 37 miles of salmon habitat.

Restoring the Deschutes Estuary

In the South Sound, the Squaxin Island Tribe will get $6.4 million to help remove the 5th Avenue Dam across the mouth of the Deschutes River, which created Capitol Lake.

The dam and tide gate, built in 1951, transformed the Deschutes Estuary — where the river historically spilled into the saltwater of Budd Inlet over expansive tidal flats — into a freshwater pool that reflects the Capitol. The lake was used as a swimming hole in the past, but it has since become home to invasive snails, algae, bacteria and decades’ worth of sediment that has piled up. The lake has been closed to all recreational uses, including swimming, boating and fishing, for more than 15 years.

“This funding is critical to restoring the Deschutes Estuary, which has long-standing cultural and spiritual significance to the Squaxin Island Tribe,” Squaxin Island Chairman Kris Peters said in a statement, adding that a healthy estuary “will provide vital habitat for threatened Puget Sound Chinook, support biodiversity, and improve water quality.”

A steelhead buffet

At the Hood Canal floating bridge, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe will use more than $2 million to study ways to improve juvenile steelhead passage. Past monitoring showed half of the tagged juvenile steelhead die at the bridge.

Salmon and steelhead like to stay in the top 3 feet of water and the fish struggle to figure out that they can go under the floating bridge. Instead they hit it like a wall and swim back and forth until they discover how to go around the pontoons. There, seals can find a swim-through buffet of baby fish, often corralled in the corners, where longer pontoons jut out.

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The tribe plans to address near-term solutions and evaluate the possibility of replacing the bridge.

Other projects across the state include more than $20 million for Yakama Nation’s efforts to restore floodplains and fish passages and $8.4 million for Trout Unlimited’s Olympic Peninsula Coldwater Connection Campaign, a fish passage project in the Hoh, Queets-Quinault and Quillayute watersheds.