Take action for fish and wildlife habitat in the Chehalis Basin

Take action for fish and wildlife habitat in the Chehalis Basin

ConservationNWAdmin / Oct 25, 2018 / Cascades to Olympics, Connecting Habitat, Protecting Wildlands

WILD NW Action Alert #282: Through October 29, you can provide comments on a proposed dam and other elements of the Chehalis River Basin Flood Damage Reduction Project, an effort important for habitat connections between the Cascades and Olympics.

For 30 years, Conservation Northwest has been a leader in protecting and connecting habitat across our region. We recognize that for long-term progress, conservation must go hand-in-hand with healthy communities. We’re restoring wildlife, forests and wild places by working with diverse stakeholders and local people.

The upper Chehalis River near Pe Ell, Washington. Photo: Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission

In southwest Washington, we’re starting to ramp up a new effort, our Cascades to Olympics program, focusing on connecting habitat between Washington’s South Cascades, Willapa Hills and the forests and mountains of the Olympic Peninsula. This work is increasingly urgent given development trends in the south Puget Sound region, and the needs of species including fishers, elk, western toads, spotted owls and marbled murrelets.

In this context, we’re paying close attention to the state’s Chehalis Basin Strategy, emphasizing forest, floodplain and habitat restoration to mitigate flooding and improve conditions for fish and wildlife, local communities, agriculture and infrastructure.

Please consider submitting a scoping comment at this link. Suggested talking points are available below!

This area has experienced several large floods in recent years, damaging local farms and communities, including the cities of Centralia and Chehalis, and affecting transportation infrastructure including Interstate 5. These flood events can also kill salmon and other wildlife and spread toxic waste into rivers and wetlands.

Increased flooding is the result of many factors, including changing rainfall patterns, development in the floodplains of rivers, alteration of riparian areas including removal of vegetation, and logging and loss of older forest in the uplands of the Basin.

At the same time, despite being one of few Northwest watersheds where wild salmon are not listed as Endangered, and are of great importance for ecosystem health, Tribal cultural integrity, and commercial and recreational fisheries, habitat in the Chehalis Basin is in dire need of restoration, with critical wild fish populations on the decline. There is also a pressing need for increased connectivity for wildlife such as elk and fishers to move between southwest Washington’s large wild landscapes.

The Chehalis Basin is important habitat for Roosevelt elk as well as fishers, spotted owls and many or other fish and wildlife species. Photo: Eric Foltz

As part of the strategy to address flood risks and improve habitat, the Chehalis River Basin Flood Control Zone District is proposing to build a floodwater retention facility on the upper mainstem Chehalis River— a type of dam that allows the river to flow except during times of high flood waters. They are conducting scoping for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and accepting public comments through Monday, October 29.

While proponents argue the dam would allow fish passage when not actively retaining floodwaters, localized destruction of wild salmon and steelhead trout spawning habitat and the impact of even temporary reservoirs on nearby forest habitat would be severe.

Any approach to reducing flooding will involve trade-offs and both environmental and financial costs, many of which are outlined in a Programmatic EIS published in 2016. The proposed dam and improvements to the levee along the Chehalis Airport would also disrupt two important migration corridors for elk.

However, the status quo is neither acceptable nor sustainable in the Chehalis Basin. We call for a hard look at the dam design and more innovative thinking about how to reduce flooding while protecting and restoring vital habitats and meeting the needs of fish, wildlife, agriculture and local communities, including the Quinault Indian Nation and the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation.

If a dam is the only way to reduce flood damage to communities and I-5, it must be formally tied to expeditious and fully-funded strategies to restore aquatic and terrestrial habitat and connectivity.

The Chehalis River Basin is one of the last strongholds of wild steelhead, Washington’s State Fish and a threatened species across much of their range. This large wild steelhead was caught and released in the Chehalis Basin. Photo: Chase Gunnell

There is a promising parallel effort to the proposed dam to restore habitat in the basin that has the potential to offset affects to wild fish, amphibians and other wildlife. This Aquatic Species Restoration Plan could also provide great habitat connectivity benefits to a wide variety of wildlife within the Chehalis Basin in addition to between the Cascades and Olympics.

However, funding is not certain for the many individual projects it will take to accomplish the full restoration vision. By formally tying any approval of the proposed dam to funding for the Aquatic Species Restoration Plan (in addition to required compensatory mitigation funding), concerns that protecting the I-5 corridor will take precedence over the longer-term restoration needs of fish and wildlife could be alleviated.

Suggested Chehalis River Basin Flood Damage Reduction Project EIS Scoping Comments

(feel free to copy and paste into this form!):

 

To the Chehalis River Basin Flood Control Zone District:

Please include the following topics in your analysis of environmental impacts from constructing a floodwater retention facility and improvements to the Chehalis-Centralia Airport levee:

  • Evaluate a formal link between approval of the dam project and funding the implementation of the Aquatic Species Restoration Plan to improve the likelihood that negative impacts of the dam on salmon and other aquatic species would be fully mitigated if the dam is constructed.
  • Consider the inclusion of larger wildlife underpasses at key places under both I-5 and U.S. Highway 12 (such as next to the Newaukum River under I-5) to mitigate for impacts from the Airport Levee improvements and the proposed dam on important elk migration corridors.
  • Analyze the potential for increased development in existing floodplain areas that would have reduced flooding as a result of the dam and consider potential means to prevent development in these ecologically and hydrologically sensitive areas.
  • Incorporate findings from new connectivity analyses being conducted through the Pacific Northwest Coast Landscape Conservation Design project into assessments of the impacts of both proposed projects on fish and wildlife habitat connectivity across the Chehalis Basin.
  • Consider and further evaluate impacts of the dam on the unique diversity of amphibian species in the Chehalis Basin.
  • Construct and analyze a scenario in which a floodwater retention facility (dam) is not approved, but all other feasible strategies for reducing and mitigating floods are implemented. This is a particular version of a “No Action” alternative where no action is not building a dam, but many other actions to reduce floods are taken, including significant forest, floodplain and riparian zone restoration.
  • Evaluate the potential for growing older forests in all managed forest landscapes for reducing floods.

Thank you for considering these comments on this important issue.

 

Learn more about our work connecting wildlife habitat on this page. We’ll be sharing more detail on our new Cascades to Olympics program in the months ahead!