A federal appeals court earlier this week ruled that Native American tribes have a right not only to fish for salmon, but that there actually be salmon for them to catch.

The decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could have implications for development in the Pacific Northwest, specifically when it comes to dams. That makes the ruling important for those of us who live, work and play in the Chehalis River Basin.

Governments throughout the basin — the second largest in the state — have been working together in unprecedented fashion to find a solution to chronic flooding while at the same time making improvements to fish habitat from Grays Harbor to Pe Ell, where the water retention structure is planned. 

For those who tire of following all the bureaucratic mechanisms of flood mitigation work, here’s where we stand: The Department of Ecology is currently heading a programmatic environmental impact process that is looking at options to accomplish a reduction of flooding and an improvement in fish habit in the basin. 

The findings produced by that work will be forwarded to the Governor’s Work Group, comprised of top stakeholders, which will make a recommendation from five available options to the governor. The governor would then make a final decision.

It’s possible that recommendation will be a water retention dam, along with efforts to improve fish habitat. That will require near-unprecedented cooperation between tribes, landowners and local governments. 

Ecology’s work is the most scientifically-based process available and includes input and research from a broad spectrum of biologists, engineers, hydrologists and many, many others. 

Tribes could potentially hold up the process no matter what the recommendation is come the end of the year, but we know they are truly considering the devastating consequences of flooding in the Chehalis River Basin and the cold reality that all of our communities cannot simply uproot and relocate.

Something must be done. If not, we will certainly find ourselves where we were in December 2007, destroyed by rising water and again frustrated by a lack of solutions.

There will always be a philosophical gap to cross when it comes development of the floodplain and the concerns of the those such as the Quinault Nation, which holds treaty rights in the basin. 

Landowners should be open to selling land along the river for fish habitat, and all concerned parties should examine the scientific evidence being presented, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to opposing dams. 

We sincerely hope both sides can listen to the concerns of the other and work toward a solution that will be good for both flooding and fish.

It might seem counterintuitive, but the two goals can potentially be accomplished with a dam.

The safety of residents in the floodplain and the fish that live in the waters is not mutually exclusive, and we should not treat it as such. 

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