The Chehalis Basin Board won’t make its recommendation to the state regarding a proposed Chehalis River dam until at least June. And Office of Chehalis Basin (OCB) Director Andrea McNamara Doyle knows people are getting antsy.
“It’s understandable that people might be feeling a little impatient,” she said during an OCB meeting last week. “Especially when the problems are getting worse and more serious as time passes.”
And, she said, especially when various versions of a potential dam have been in discussion for “literally decades.”
The board was slated to report its recommendations to the governor this March, before the state Legislative session was over. So why the delay?
“Consensus decision-making is just plain complicated. And that means time-consuming,” McNamara Doyle said.
The seven-member board includes governor appointees, members of the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority, and representatives from the Quinault Indian Nation and Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation. Ex-officio members include representatives from state departments of fish and wildlife, natural resources, transportation, and ecology, and the state’s conservation commission.
And the long-standing disagreements that have delayed decision making and divided the board — disputes over the environmental impacts of the proposed dam — were also at times evident during last week’s meeting.
“We are facing an extinction crisis and a climate crisis, so I find it hard to believe that you’re even considering building a dam now that we know the devastation that dams bring to biodiversity and the environment as a whole,” said Seattle resident Karen Davis during public comment.
Dr. John Henricksen, a staunch advocate for the dam, fired back, pointing to the structure’s temporary nature — the facility would only close to hold back water during major flooding events, creating a reservoir that would drain in the following days or weeks.
“The fish won’t even know it’s there if it’s designed like we’ve asked them to,” he said, adding that the design is “unlike anything that exists anywhere on Earth right now.”
Henricksen chairs the advisory committee to the Chehalis River Basin Flood Control Zone District, which proposed the dam.
According to McNamara Doyle, the reservoir would hold enough water to fill 18 or more Seahawks stadiums — something opponents say would devastate upstream habitat, while proponents say the impacts could be mitigated. Tribal partners on the board also oppose the dam.
Besides the standoff between those for and against the proposal, McNamara Doyle also said the board wants to see how the environmental impact statements — both state and federal — will play out before making any major decisions.
The state’s environmental impact statement (EIS) process, spearheaded by the Department of Ecology, was paused by the governor last year due to concerns about negative impacts of the dam. According to McNamara Doyle, the process is once again in motion, with Ecology still figuring out how to incorporate the large number of public comments that their draft EIS elicited. The federal EIS, she said, is expected to be finalized by later this year or early 2022.
Even after the EIS processes are completed, however, McNamara Doyle said the public should understand that a final decision on the dam is still “a ways away.”
The project applicant — the Chehalis River Basin Flood Control Zone District — will have to decide if it wants to continue its support. The board would need consensus to continue investing in the proposal. The Legislature would have to approve funding for a major portion of the project. And permitting agencies would need to sign off on plans to avoid or mitigate environmental impacts.
The proposed dam is being pursued in tandem with millions of dollars in funding for aquatic species restoration projects in the basin.