Months after dam removal, Pilchuck River is showing signs of recovery

As water rushes along the Pilchuck River, it’s almost too loud to hear Brett Shattuck, a restoration ecologist with the Tulalip Tribes, ask his team whether they’ve spotted any fish.

“Don’t fall,” he says jokingly, wading through nearly chest-high water to another scientist.

They’re working their way across the river to get a better glimpse of the location where a dam stood for more than 100 years. The tribe, along with roughly a dozen partner agencies, removed the dam for good in mid-August. A little more than three months later, it’s hard to tell anything was ever there aside from a few chunks of concrete that remain near the riverbank.

“It’s really created this beautiful natural river system,” Shattuck explained to KIRO 7 after getting out of the water. “It’s created — all on it’s own — exactly what you want to see in terms of habitat, to allow these fish through this ‘gateway’ to get these fish to the upper habitat.”

The goal of removing the Pilchuck dam was to open up an additional 37 miles of pristine salmon habitat. The dam hadn’t been used to divert water to the City of Snohomish for several years, but it served as a giant roadblock to spawning salmon.

Last August, Shattuck said there was at best 50 salmon spotted above the dam. This year they’ve already spotted hundreds of coho in recent spawning surveys above the area where the dam once stood. A handful of chinook have been spotted too.

“The river has really taken itself back,” said Shattuck. “I’m pretty confident this project is going to increase the abundance of fish.”

That’s good news for salmon recovery. These days, however, there are more negative headlines than positive.

It’s not that recovery efforts don’t exist — Washington, local tribes and countless nonprofits have pumped money into programs in an attempt to undo decades of harmful practices; but that work is also offset by degradation that continues to this day. As a result, salmon recovery has struggled.

The dam removal itself is only a part of a larger equation when it comes to salmon recovery. There are numerous other factors as well. Climate change factors in, as do conditions in the ocean and further downriver. In fact, the Washington Department of Ecology has said that the Pilchuck River itself has risen above historically normal temperatures in recent years — an added stressor on the endangered salmon.

That doesn’t mean the dam removal is for nothing. While the state is reviewing plans to determine whether additional actions along the Pilchuck River can help, the dam removal appears to be helping salmon access colder water further upstream.

“We saw coho salmon much earlier than we typically would since they weren’t impeded by the dam,” said Matt Pouley, a field projects coordinator. “I’m not surprised at all. I thought as soon as that dam came out we should see chinook salmon in there, and that’s what we saw.”

The next step will be to continue site surveys, to determine what type of impact the dam removal has had. The goal, according to Shattuck, is to document the effects so future dam removal projects have more data on their effects.

Other dam removals are being discussed around the state. Earlier this year a dam was removed from the Nooksak River. The Nelson Dam, near Yakima, is scheduled for removal in 2021.

There has been a recent acceleration in the removal of dams, though not all dams are as easy to remove; some produce electricity, while others are used for irrigation. It can also be a costly effort, with numerous stakeholders that don’t always agree.