Dams powered Tacoma but killed off salmon runs. 92 years later the fish are back

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Tacoma Power is now in the fish business.

After a 92-year absence, spring chinook salmon are once again moving up and down the North Fork of the Skokomish River, thanks to a lot of human intervention and $62 million worth of state-of-the art facilities.

Two new hatcheries, collection facilities and extensive monitoring of fish habitat have been put in place. In August, some of those first efforts returned to the North Fork in the form of spawning spring chinook.

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“This is a very exciting summer for us,” said fishery manager Andrew Ollenburg. “To actually get returning adults and get eggs from them is super exciting.”

The reversal of fortune for the fish came after years of negotiations with the Skokomish Indian Tribe and decades of increasing alarm over declining salmon populations.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Tacoma Power built the Cushman Hydroelectric Project, which dammed at two places the river that flows from the Olympic Mountains overlooking Hood Canal.

While the project created two lakes and provided clean energy to the growing city of Tacoma, it abruptly ended the upstream and downstream migration of salmon on the river. Fish that for eons had swum into the upper reaches of the mountains to spawn now hit a concrete wall.

The project ended the river as well.

A tunnel and penstocks, large exposed pipes, carry water from dam No. 2 to Tacoma Power’s powerhouse built along Highway 101 near Hoodsport. The diversion essentially drained the river dry.

The tribe knew what the dams meant for them before the first concrete was poured.

“You’re building a hydroelectric dam across the most productive salmon river here in the Hood Canal watershed, you’re building it without any fish passage and you’re diverting the entire flow of the north fork of the Skokomish River out of the watershed,” said Joseph Pavel, the Skokomish Tribe’s Natural Resources Director.

“We protested all the way along. It dates back to when the project was first thought about. The tribe resisted,” Pavel said. “My great-grandfather filed (suit) in probably (19)29.”

Today, the era of dam building is long gone in America. In some places, like along the Elwha River farther north, dams have been demolished.

That wasn’t the plan for Cushman which produces 134 megawatts of electricity — enough to serve about 30,000 homes.

Relicensing prompts action

On March 23, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge pushed a button inside the White House that started electricity flowing from the Cushman Hydroelectric Project to Tacoma. The button was only ceremonial, but the event wasn’t — the dam that holds back Lake Cushman was at the leading edge of a decades-long period of hydroelectric projects in the West.

From the rim of that first dam today, a visitor can see the waters of Lake Cushman pointing like a curved dagger at the Olympic Mountains to the north. The river bed below is dry — as it has been for over 90 years.

The water goes through a tunnel bored into a rock cliff and into a powerhouse below where its used to spin electricity-producing turbines. When storms fill the reservoir beyond capacity, excess water flows over a nearby spillway.

Further downstream is Lake Kokanee, held back by Cushman Dam No. 2, built in 1930. The waters below its face froth and churn as they leave the dam and continue down to the Hood Canal.

That hasn’t always been the case. For decades that river bed also was dry.

In 1974, Tacoma Power’s original license for the hydroelectric project expired. The utility applied for renewal.

The relicensing process stretched on for years, and in 1999 the tribe sued again over the loss of fish and water.

In 2008, the Cushman settlement agreement was signed by the tribe, Tacoma Public Utilities and the state Fish and Wildlife Department.

Tacoma Power received a 50-year-long federal license, retroactive to 1998.

As part of the agreement the Skokomish Tribe was given:

  • A $12.6 million payment.
  • Skokomish Park at Lake Cushman (formerly Camp Cushman), Saltwater Park on Hood Canal and 500-acre Nalley Ranch.
  • 7.25 percent of the value of electric production from the Cushman No. 2 powerhouse.

As part of the agreement, Tacoma Power agreed to return fish to the river it had blocked decades earlier

The $62 million fish recovery project, funded by bonds, is the result.

Today, the tribe actively assists in Tacoma Power’s hatchery operations by providing both fish and manpower, Pavel said.

Pavel characterizes the relationship between the tribe and Tacoma Power as productive.

“We’ve finally reached a consensus on what are the appropriate actions. Both for ecological and resource management but also for operation of the hydro and power facilities,” he said. “We might not be happy with each and every element of that, but it’s something we agreed upon and signed and we’re committed to making it work.”

Two tall dams

Bringing salmon back to the North Fork was no easy feat.

The Cushman dams rise 275 and 235 feet high — too tall for a fish ladder like the kind used by dams on the Columbia River.

Salmon-bearing rivers are two-way streets. Fish need to move downriver and into the sea to mature into adults, and adults must go upriver to spawn. Dams as tall as these thwart them both ways.

For the new fish recovery plan, Tacoma Power has built a series of transportation systems designed to get the fish where they need to go. Now, fish are trapped, trammed and trucked up, over and down the faces of the dams.

Coming up river to spawn, fish are met by the face of Cushman No. 2, holding back Lake Kokanee. That marks the end of the free-flowing North Fork.

That’s when hatchery personnel go into action.

First, adult fish are collected from a trap at the base of the dam. Then, a tram on rails hauls the salmon in a hopper up the face of the edifice. From there, a crane latches onto the hopper and swings it over to a sorting facility.

Fish are sorted according to species and origin.

That pickup point at the base of the No. 2 dam is also a drop-off point. When they are ready, fish from the nearby hatchery are loaded into the tram and safely delivered to the base where they begin their journey to the sea.

“We release juvenile fish there with the thought that they’re going to return to that spot as adults,” Ollenburg said.

As part of the relicensing agreement, Tacoma Power is required to keep water flowing from the dam and into the river year round. They installed a new powerhouse at the base of the dam to use the water for hydroelectric generation.

“We’re attracting salmon with the water we’ve already generated electricity with,” Ollenburg said

State-of-the-art hatcheries

Forget about the long concrete trough-like ponds of old hatcheries. Tacoma Power’s North Fork Skokomish Salmon and the nearby Saltwater Park Sockeye hatcheries are the latest in technology.

Operating room-like facilities keep eggs and fish disease-free. Alarms let operators know when something is going wrong on the road from egg to full-finned fish.

From fry (three-fourths inches long) to the time they are released (2-1/2 to 7 inches long) the fish grow in circular tanks. Water is continually added and removed, providing both a current for the fish to swim in and a waste disposal system.

“The fish are always swimming so they are getting exercise to maintain their health,” Ollenburg said. The constantly moving water also improves its quality.

The upper hatchery, within sight of Lake Kokanee, grows chinook, steelhead and coho. The lower hatchery on Highway 101 across the road from the iconic powerhouse, raises only sockeye. Sockeye are vulnerable to an infectious disease and must be kept separate from other fish.

On Wednesday, a crew gathered at the North Fork hatchery to begin the process of raising a new generation of chinook.

A holding tank held females and another held males.

“We separate the boys from the girls so there’s no flirting going on,” Ollenburg said.

Chinook will return to their spawning grounds at 3 to 7 years old, he said. The average age is about 4 years.

The brood stock being used Wednesday were caught at the base of the dam and held in tanks for a month while they matured sexually. These particular fish had been released at the dam’s base in 2016 but had been raised by a nearby hatchery.

One by one, three females were caught and their eggs removed. Each group of eggs is kept separate from one another and numbered. A technician took samples of each female fish’s kidney to run tests for a bacterial infection endemic to the chinook. If a high enough level of infection is found in results, that batch of eggs will be destroyed.

Then, males were squeezed in just the right place to produce a stream of sperm, carefully shot into each bucket of eggs.

Water, it turns out, is the magic ingredient that makes fertilization possible, Ollenburg said. The three components are mixed together in a spawning room by two technicians.

Inside a building at the hatchery, Ollenburg took the cover off an incubator to reveal trays constantly bathed in running water. Each tray holds 3,200 eggs — the product of one female fish and a few males.

The eggs will take two months to hatch but already, at five weeks, black eyes were forming.

In addition to the chinook (king) and sockeye (red), winter-run steelhead and coho (silver) are part of the fisheries project.

Tacoma Power also owns hatcheries on the Cowlitz River but those are run by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Floating fish palace

The highest — in terms of elevation — of Tacoma Power’s fishery facilities is a group of floats and buildings attached to the Cushman Dam No. 1. Built in 2014, the pumps, pens and nets are all designed to do one thing: catch fish.

From March through July, 24 hours a day, the machinery operates at what’s called the Floating Surface Collector. It’s there that the fishes’ migration to the sea begins. Unless they’re sent back to the lake.

Using a design not unlike traditional native fish-funnel traps, the machinery tricks young fish into thinking there is an outflow at the dam’s face. Fish are lured into a wide funnel shaped chute that gets progressively narrower and shallower. Pumps pull water through the chute and as it becomes more narrow, the water current increases in speed. Soon, the fish pass a point of no return — where they are unable to turn around.

“Once the fish are past that point, we have them captured,” Ollenburg said.

The water is drained away and the fish are deposited in holding tanks.

From there, the fish are sorted by species and size. Where they go changes year to year, based on fisheries’ requirements.

Some fish, like sockeye and kokanee, are placed downstream below the second dam. Others, like young chinook, are put back in the lake.

Some fish, like large mouth bass — an invasive species — are killed under the direction of Fish and Wildlife.

Lake Cushman is stocked with only one fish from Tacoma Power’s hatcheries: sockeye. Chinook and coho might be placed in the lake in the future, Ollenburg said.

“Right now we are focusing on building the sockeye returns,” he said. “They are not strong enough to be released directly into the river when they leave the hatchery, so we grow them in the lake for a year.”

Some sockeye are tagged with various tracking devices.

“From that we can get three dimensional models of how the fish move through the lake,” Ollenburg said.

Habitat monitoring is accomplished the old-fashioned way.

Once a week, year-round, two biologists are sent down the North Folk in dry suits and snorkel gear. The divers float from the base of the dam to Little Falls, a waterfall four miles downriver where a series of natural looking pools were carved into the rock in 2015 to assist the fish in their upstream migration.

Soon, fish carcasses from the hatcheries will be placed back in the river. It’s another crucial link in the salmon’s gifts to the ecosystem.

“The overarching goal is salmon recovery which affects so many other things,” Ollenburg said. “To see these adult fish return is a very good sign of that.”

Pavel agreed.

“Just to see them is always a beautiful thing,” he said.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor