Habitat Project Is ‘Just the Beginning of Something Great’ on the Skookumchuck

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Miles of rich riparian zones and fish habitat are slowly being reclaimed along the upper reaches of the Skookumchuck River thanks to a collaborative process that has put a property owner, conservation districts and the state all on the same page.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) finished work on the two-year, $4 million Skookumchuck Early Action Reach River Restoration project last August. The project to install about 30 log jams across more than a mile of river and a high-flow channel was funded through state money via the Chehalis Basin Board.

The improvements will enhance streamflow and provide deeper and cooler habitat for aquatic species and native fish. A conservation easement between a local property owner and two conservation districts will restore the nearby riparian zone and bring back native forests over the coming decades to improve the habitat.

Celina Abercrombie, the Chehalis Basin Strategy manager with WDFW, said they expect to see a doubling in the number of deep pools for fish habitat through this project. The hope is that by promoting those habitats, more fish will migrate through the channel and returns will strengthen.

“I would say the highlight is being able to demonstrate that we can get some really amazing work done by collaborating and working together. This work was not done by just one or two parties, it really took a team between the landowner, who started with a vision, and then invited others in so that we could make that vision a reality,” Abercrombie said.

Just one of four projects WDFW is working on in the Chehalis Basin, Abercrombie said this project is “just the beginning of something great.”

Back in September, the Capitol Land Trust announced it had purchased 28 acres of property from Green Diamond Resource Company with funds from the Early Action Reach project. Alongside the 74-acre conservation easement, the work on the properties ensures that 1.5 miles of critical salmon habitat will remain in perpetual conservation.

There are currently no federally listed fish within the Chehalis Basin or its associated subbasins.

When The Chronicle visited the site on Monday, workers with Thurston Conservation District’s Veterans Conservation Corps crew were busy planting native shrubbery and western hemlock trees within the riparian zone and working to remove or treat invasive blackberry bushes.

The hope is that as the river shifts and evolves, these trees will grow toward maturity and complement fish habitat and improve the ecosystem.

Over the last couple years, more than 4,700 linear feet of restoration has occurred along the river and the conservation district has supported in planting roughly 20 acres of riparian habitat and land treatment, Abercrombie said.

Dozens of log jams were burrowed deep into the river beds, a task Abercrombie said was difficult due to the bedrock geology of the Skookumchuck subbasin. In addition to providing beneficial habitat, the log jams also help to slow the river and sediment that flows through, creating naturally occuring gravel jams in a deeper pool.

Across an oxbow along this stretch of the Skookumchuck, WDFW also excavated a high-flow channel to help maintain the flow of the river along this stretch. When water flows high enough, the stream will detour through the channel and back into the river.

Due to the schedule of fish migration, Abercrombie said they were only able to work during the month of August the last two years and they had a window of about 60 days to finish their work. Healthy runs of steelhead, coho, spring and fall Chinook all use the river.

Notably on the Skookumchuck, Abercrombie said there’s been some concerns around recent hybridization between the spring and fall Chinook runs.

“When you have fish all coming in at the same time, it’s just not clear. You have fish spawning on top of other fish,” she said, adding later: “It’s not bad or good, it’s just kind of what’s just happened. Part of it might just be a natural part of these fish and their lifecycle. Part of it is we’ve kind of monkey’d with the landscape and limited some of the spaces where they might have spawned separately … They’re really just spawning in whatever habitat they can find.”

But there’s still a lot they don’t know about the hybridization, Abercrombie said. WDFW is working with the Quinault Indian Nation to better understand the impacts.

With TransAlta Centralia set to divest from coal in 2025, putting the future of the Skookumchuck Reservoir Dam into question, fish advocates may see an opportunity in modifying it to build better migratory resources for fish, such as a fish ladder.

Abercrombie said steelhead have traditionally been the only fish to migrate beyond the dam, though studies around fish habitat upstream from the reservoir are still inconclusive and ongoing.

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