Guest Commentary: Even in This Crisis, We Need to Ask Hard Questions About a Proposed Chehalis Dam


February seems like a long time ago because of the coronavirus crisis, but we remember it well. That month, for the first time ever, Washington State Fish and Wildlife closed the Chehalis River to recreational fishing. That closure, which included all tributaries, followed four years of awful steelhead returns well below the state’s annual goal of 8,400 returning fish.

We grew up fishing the Chehalis River. It was practically our backyard. For us, and many lifelong anglers we know, the decline of the river’s fish runs is heartbreaking. But the real test is what comes next. Right now, the public has a chance to comment on a massive new dam proposal on the upper Chehalis, a mile up from the town of Pe Ell, where Greg spent every childhood summer. 

And while commenting on big infrastructure projects isn’t at the top of everyone’s list right now, we urge Lewis, Thurston and Grays Harbor residents to learn more and get involved in the online process that will determine the future of our communities and our river. 

Here’s the deal with the dam, and why we are so concerned: the dam is proposed as a partial solution for reducing flood damage. But from the beginning, its supporters have spun a too-rosy and at times misleading picture of this dam — or “temporary flood reduction facility” as they call it. At first, they said its reservoir will provide new opportunities for swimming, fishing, and boating. It won’t. They’ve admitted that its flood reduction benefits, which are minimal to begin with, won’t reach all basin residents. Yet we all might end up paying for it. They insist it will somehow be good for fish, despite the fact that it would periodically drown and scour out miles of prime steelhead and Chinook salmon habitat. And imagine if you’re a fish hitting a 1,220-foot-wide wall of concrete; that alone would be pretty discouraging.

Even in the massive public health crisis we are living in, it’s still a crucial time for Chehalis basin residents to learn more, and ask the hard questions about the proposed dam before it’s approved with very little public input. That’s especially true in a time when Washington state tax dollars should be prioritized for the smartest, most up-to-date infrastructure investments — not for outdated projects that won’t solve the very real problems of today. 

So here’s what we need to know:  

Who will pay for the dam’s estimated $628 million building costs? (And that’s a conservative estimate.) 

Who will pay for the dam’s ongoing maintenance, including debris removal, repair, and labor costs. 

And if we’re going to pay all that money for moderate flood reduction benefits — reducing I-5 closures by 24 hours and decreasing flood crests — we need to know how long those benefits would even last, if we just keep paving over the basin with new big box stores and strip malls. 

Dams aren’t always bad; they can provide clean renewable energy and recreation. This dam would do neither. As taxpaying residents of this basin, we want to make sure that our money will be well spent on thoughtful, long-term solutions to flooding and salmon declines; solutions like smarter floodplain development and highway raising. And as passionate fishermen and river guides, we want to make sure that our precious remaining wild steelhead and salmon habitat will be protected.  These are the hard questions that we need answered at the dam’s (now virtual) public hearings on April 21. We call on our fellow sportsmen and neighbors to join us and make sure that our concerns don’t get drowned out.


Greg King is a sport fisherman based in Toledo, and Brian Oldfield, an Olympia resident, has been a Chehalis River fishing guide since 2003.