A quick read of the Department of Ecology’s summary of a draft environmental impact statement centered solely on the possibility of a dam on the Chehalis River creates the image of a doomsday scenario for fish in the basin.
The study found there would be reductions in spring- and fall-run Chinook salmon, coho salmon and steelhead trout, along with lamprey, mussels and some amphibians should a dam be plopped into the river with no mitigating actions.
Few would dispute the reality of these negative impacts when looking solely and completely at the placement of a dam; however, that’s not what the Chehalis Basin Strategy is, and stakeholders would be wise to see the benefits of its additional features.
In fact, the strategy dictates that any such structure would be accompanied by millions upon millions of dollars in aquatic species restoration projects downriver from the dam.
This approach — crystalized in the form of a 2016 analysis — was found to have a net positive outcome, both for aquatic species and for flood mitigation.
It was a determination that brought together stakeholders on most sides of the divide, from environmental interests to local government leaders interested in combating chronic flooding.
That’s in large part because climate change projections were also included, with models showing that with or without a dam, our prized fish species would be pushed to the brink of extinction.
With the Chehalis Basin Strategy, we are presented with a once in a generation opportunity to tackle the two-headed beast of declining fish runs and increased flooding hazards projected to occur over the next century.
With critics coming out against the dam, it’s important that their fears be placed within this context.
“Nothing has changed,” Chehalis Basin Board member J. Vander Stoep said. “We already knew that if all you do is build a dam, that’s bad.”
The Chehalis Basin Strategy has already resulted in dozens of localized flood reduction projects throughout the basin, proof that it involved much more than simply placing a dam on the Chehalis River. Likewise, the massive aquatic species protection and restoration plan — a critical element of the strategy — is still being drafted and could be complete by the fall or winter, Vander Stoep said.
With all that in mind, consider the flood reduction possibilities offered by the full suite of projects, including the water retention structure.
Ecology’s summary of a draft environmental impact statement found that the dam and associated smaller projects would provide significant protection for residents downstream, most notably in Centralia.
While the 2016 analysis found such actions could provide protection for 850 structures, the current Department of Ecology projections put that number at 1,280.
“Centralia is ground zero for this and I feel as though the community is distracted now,” Vander Stoep said.
It would also provide protection for Interstate 5, which can bring millions of dollars in commerce to a halt in the case of the major flooding we’ve increasingly become accustomed to over the last 30 years.
“Imagine today, I-5 being overtopped for five days, it would be catastrophic,” Vander Stoep said, noting the sensitivity of the supply line due to the spread of COVID-19.
The fears of the opponents of a dam — the structure itself, and not the wider plan — are understandable. Those who criticize development in the floodplain are within their rights, despite the fact that in most cases those choices were made generations ago.
But we should also be looking at the panoramic picture along with the microscopic elements scrutinized in Ecology’s draft environmental impact statement on the dam.
There’s no dam on the Chehalis River today. Yet, earlier this year the salmon fishery was shut down. Flooding is occurring at a faster and more devastating rate than at any time in recorded history. The Chehalis Basin Strategy is about developing a prescription for both.
At a time when our society has been seemingly upended by the uncertainty of a pandemic, it’s worth confronting the fact that we will almost certainly be hit with another catastrophic flood.
“This will be a catastrophe that will get a lot more people in our community,” Vander Step said.
Eric Schwartz is regional executive editor for Lafromboise Communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about the Chehalis Basin Strategy at chehalisbasinstrategy.com. The public comment period runs through May 27. To comment, visit chehalisbasinstrategy.com/eis/.