Floods and Fish: Proponents of Chehalis Basin Flood Protections and Fish Enhancement Joining Forces


In December of 2007 the skies opened up above the Willapa Hills in West Lewis County and rained down about 20 inches of water, causing massive flooding of the Chehalis River, and closing down Interstate 5 for a few days as it was under 10 feet of water.

They called it a 500-year flood event.

Weather experts believe it is only a matter of time — not 500 years — before another massive flood swamps the basin, which is the second largest river basin in the state (the Columbia River Basin is the largest in Washington state).

In that same basin another disaster is unfolding — a historic drop in salmon runs on the Chehalis. Several factors flow into shriveling salmon runs, including habitat in the Chehalis River Basin being degraded by as much as 80 percent for some salmon species.

Fixing both dwindling salmon runs and future flooding might require the two divergent groups, one focused on flooding, the other on building back salmon runs, to join forces together. The idea is finding strength in numbers.

Recently leaders from the Quinault Indian Nation and the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, along with J. Vander Stoep (a Chehalis attorney appointed by the governor to the Chehalis Basin Board) came together at The Chronicle to describe their hopes for solving the dual problems.

The two tribes haven’t always found themselves collaborating together. The meeting at The Chronicle was unusual and signaled a strengthening of a coalition that just might be able to offer real solutions to fish and floods.

One of the proposed projects is a water retention dam above Pe Ell on the Chehalis River. Typically tribes and environmentalists oppose dam projects. When coupled with numerous fish restoration projects, that opposition is no longer a given. Both flooding and fish will require major federal and state funding, and as the groups come together to support each other’s projects, the possibility of securing such funding advances.

Tyson Johnston is the Quinault Indian Nation tribal council vice president. He was appointed to the Office of Chehalis Basin under the umbrella of the Department of Ecology by his tribe. Harry Pickernell is the tribal council chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation and is one of seven Chehalis Basin Board members. They were both part of the conversation set up by Vander Stoep with The Chronicle.

Johnston said Vander Stoep has pushed the collaborative process for years, and credits Vander Stoep with bringing divergent groups together.

“J.’s strategy is absolutely essential in getting us where we are today,” Johnston said.

Key, Johnston said, is creating a true, trustworthy partnership.

“The Chehalis Tribe is proud to be part of a great collaboration of tribes, municipalities, and government agencies,” Pickernell said. “The meetings and discussions have brought together many differing views and ideas, all with a common goal; to address restoration and flooding issues in our Chehalis River Basin. These agencies may have never come together if not for such an important and critical time for the basin. We, the Chehalis Basin Board will continue to work together to find the best possible solution to preserve and  enhance salmon habitat and to minimize flood damage within our basin.”

With dwindling salmon runs and chronic flooding, Native American tribes, government agencies and environmentalists see cooperation and shared interests as an emerging solution.

The flooding is real. In the last 30 years, five of the largest recorded flooding events on the Chehalis have occurred. If no action is taken, if no federal and state dollars flow toward a solution, estimates have damages from flooding at $3.5 billion in the next 100 years.

For fish runs, low returns have dropped the harvest by tribal and commercial fishermen for the past three decades.

Hope for solutions is now placed on a plan titled the Chehalis Basin Strategy, which has as a goal to make residents in the basin safe from flooding, and improve salmon habitat for generations to come.

For fish restoration, the strategy will complete scores of projects — both long and short term, and small and large scale.

From the tribes’ perspective, they have thousands of years of standing in what happens in the Chehalis basin. Archeological evidence indicates human habitation in the Pacific Northwest going back perhaps 13,000 years.

For the farmers, business owners and landowners for the past several hundred years, their standing is also personal. Just 12 years ago they remember their land being flooded out, with homes floating down the bloated river and livestock drowning by the hundreds, if not thousands. 

Over the past six years the state has funded studies and fish enhancements to the tune of about $200 million. The projects include 35 fish-friendly water crossings built. The effort includes opening 87 miles of fish habitat with plans to open up another 17 miles. 

“A mountain of work has already been done and it is ongoing,” Vander Stoep said.

The project has already completed about 100 fish and flood projects, all on time and on or under budget, Vander Stoep said.

Johnston said this is the deepest level of analysis on the Chehalis Basin on how best to use dollars.

Last month the coalition traveled to Washington, D.C. to build federal support for funding. Johnston and Vander Stoep agreed with years of studies, this recent trip to D.C. got the attention of the Northwest Congressional delegation. The success at the state level in securing $200 million for project funding and planning influenced federal support, they said, adding that the two tribes coming together was helpful. Johnston called it “indescribably powerful.”

“Our message was loud and clear to the federal government,” Johnston said. 

Specifically they are seeking federal appropriations beyond special grants with the goal of long-term financial support.

Next steps for the project are National Environmental Policy Act and State Environmental Policy Act studies that should reveal if the fish restoration projects, along with the water retention dam, will indeed bring back salmon runs. The NEPA and SEPA studies specifically assess environmental effects of proposed projects. One study already completed shows that runs of spring chinook, steelhead, fall chinook and coho will all dramatically drop if no action is taken.

The SEPA study should be finished by late February of 2020, and the NEPA, through the federal Army Corps of Engineers, by September of next year.

While the tribes do offers support for the process, key to their continued support is the results of the NEPA and SEPA studies. The tribal leaders are clear that any projects combined must bring real success to building up and sustaining salmon runs.

They are also clear that they support the process of studying the impacts of a water retention dam above Pe Ell through NEPA and SEPA, but any final decisions on whether to support or oppose construction of the dam are in the future.

For the Quinaults, salmon is central to their culture. With predictions of rising ocean waters, the Quinaults, who live on the Pacific Ocean coast, are also understanding of the fear of flooding.

Johnston said his people and the residents of West Lewis County and other areas of chronic Chehalis River flooding can find a common mission. 

“Everyone will and should make decisions on the best long term solutions for their community,” Johnston said.

Vander Stoep, Pickerell and Johnson are hoping that putting all of their communities’ needs together will create the momentum to finally fix the intricate problem of fish and flooding.