Fears take root whether funding will dry up as salmon recovery work continues in Washington state

In a matter of weeks, salmon will swim up the Pilchuck River and find habitat that seemingly disappeared generations ago.

For the first time in more than 100 years, salmon won’t find trouble locating a fish ladder, and locals won’t hear the familiar slapping noise of salmon unsuccessfully trying to leap over a human-made cement barrier, as the dam that stopped the natural flow of the river for decades has come down.

“Really, what we’re allowing to happen here is to allow the river to take care of itself,” said Brett Shattuck, a restoration ecologist with the Tulalip Tribes working to remove the Pilchuck Dam. “We’ll have the first few fall and winter floods real soon, and they’ll shape the river as it wants to.”

Shattuck is excited to see the river retake its natural route. The $2 million project — a collaboration between the Tulalip Tribes and the city of Snohomish — will open up more than 30 miles of habitat for salmon.

The cost, compared to the benefits, is relatively small.

While dam removal has a major impact on river restoration, few have as little pushback as this one. The dam no longer serves a purpose. For all intents and purposes, it was a meaningless cement wall after it stopped being used to deliver water to nearby residents.

The dam may not have meant much to locals once the water stopped flowing into their homes, but it continued to be a nuisance in terms of the state’s longtime salmon problems. The dam had a fish ladder intended to give salmon passage, but many had trouble finding their way into it. Many would fail to ever get over the dam blocking them from miles of cold water and pristine habitat needed for a number of species protected by the Endangered Species Act to thrive.

“These impacts are incremental, but they all add up to big problems for fish,” said Shattuck.

The Pilchuck isn’t the only dam coming down this year. As KIRO 7 reported earlier this year, the Nooksack Dam is coming down too. Dozens of projects big and small are underway to restore habitat through other means as well.

Yet after years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, the flood of salmon that past generations knew haven’t come back.

“We are now battling climate change, as well as tremendous population growth,” said Laura Blackmore, the executive director of Puget Sound Partnership.

“The amount of money that we, as a state, have invested in restoring the salmon runs here in Puget Sound — we haven’t seen the success we want to see, but we also haven’t gone backwards despite our streams and rivers being warmer all the time, millions of people moving here in the last 10 years,” she said.

Blackmore’s agency has a long list of projects that’ll soon be shovel-ready and is working on the types of partnerships that’ll create more viable projects 5 to 10 years out.

It’s the type of work that she said prevented a worse position. But the budget crunch for every agency that relies on state funding looms large, especially for those now part of a decadeslong fight to save salmon and, ultimately, the southern resident orcas.

“It’s absolutely something that keeps me up at night,” said Blackmore.

It’s not that there isn’t hope. Projects unfolding right now are proof that collaboration continues to take root. The U.S. House’s latest budget even earmarked additional money for the Puget Sound Partnership, though if passed by the Senate would require matching state dollars — a tall order while the state is expected to tighten its belt as dollars disappear during a lengthy pandemic.

While money may be tight moving forward, progress from this year’s work will soon be tested, and ecologists like Shattuck are already awaiting this year’s return to measure what the early returns are for removing the Pilchuck Dam.

Decades ago, the salmon could be measured by the thousands. But in recent years, the numbers were closer to 50 or 100. But this year, with pristine habitat and a clear path, there’s hope that experts will see the beginning of a change.