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The Middle Fork Nooksack Dam, seen here before it's removal, will restore access to 16 miles of critical salmon habitat. Photo courtesy American Rivers.

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen the removal of both the Middle Fork Nooksack and Pilchuck dams. To learn more about these projects and our overall dams program, we sat down with Anji Moraes, a Senior Program Officer who leads our Pacific Northwest Biodiversity work to learn more about the project.

Can you tell us a little about the dams program?

We first got involved by partnering with American Rivers on the Middle Fork Nooksack Dam removal project. It’s a project that had been ranked a high priority for early Chinook recovery for years, but had stalled out due to cost. In late 2016, we provided funding which reinvigorated the project, supporting a collaborative process among stakeholders to help identify a design, which made the project eligible to unlock co-funding from the City of Bellingham and the state’s Puget Sound Acquisition and Recreation Fund. Building on this success, in 2019, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation funded five additional dam removals, one in Washington and four in Oregon to be completed over three years.

What prompted us to get involved? Why is it important?

Northwest salmon stocks are dwindling, which has a host of ramifications for the Puget Sound region. One of particular importance to us is the lack of adequate food supply – i.e. Chinook salmon – for the Southern Resident Killer Whales.  One way to increase Chinook availability is by re-establishing connection to spawning and rearing habitat that’s currently inaccessible, which in some cases means removing dams that are blocking river passage.

Vulcan Inc.'s Anji Moraes

How bad is the situation for salmon?

Some Pacific Northwest salmon populations are as low as 10% of their historic levels, and the overall trends are very concerning. Salmon have shown us that they are pretty resilient, but they need access to cool, clean streams and rivers to thrive– removing dams can help increase the amount of habitat available to them. For example, removing the Middle Fork Nooksack Dam will restore access to 16 river miles of high quality habitat for Chinook salmon, and 26 miles for bull trout.

Does this mean all dams should be removed?

Some dams play important roles for communities – providing flood control or irrigation for example. However, there are a large number of obsolete or unnecessary dams across the country – many aged far beyond their planned lifespan. Removing those dams isn’t necessarily controversial, but it does require community buy in, funding, and political will.

Summer of Dam Removals

Dams Set to Be Removed
Miles of Critical Salmon Habit Restored
Miles of Other Habitat Restored

How many dams are coming down this summer?

We’re supporting the removal of 5 dams this summer, two in Washington and three in Oregon. There’s a pretty wide range between them in terms of location, function, and appearance. All told, the projects will restore 73 miles of Chinook habitat, and over 100 miles of habitat for other salmonids, lamprey and bulltrout.

Tell us more about a specific project.

We’re partnering with the Tulalip Tribes of Washington and City of Snohomish to remove the Pilchuck River Dam. The Pilchuck River is the main tributary of the Snohomish River, one of the primary producers of salmon in Puget Sound. Removing the Pilchuck Dam will restore 37 miles of salmon habitat, protect local landowners from flooding, and open up on third of the Pilchuck for salmon access. 

Will removing these dams make a difference?  Will they help save the Southern Resident population?

I think one thing to be clear about is that unfortunately there’s not one silver bullet solution that will save the Southern Resident Killer Whales. Lack of food supply is a huge issue, but they also are struggling with the impacts of toxic pollutants and noise pollution. And there’s still a lot we don’t know – including some of the ways climate change might be a factor in their decline. But increasing the supply of Chinook salmon is an important piece of the puzzle. We’ve seen ecosystems come back to life after dam removal, such as what is happening on the Elwha, and time is of the essence. 

Anything else you’d like to share?

This work is one part of a larger whole when it comes to ecosystem recovery. The more we think of things being interconnected, I think the more effective we can be in supporting restoration and recovery. As with the two projects we’ve talked about here, there is ample opportunity partner with others to think about ecosystem recovery that benefits our environment and people.