Editor’s Note: This story is part of "Headwaters to Harbor," a project by The Chronicle to document the Chehalis River from Pe Ell to Grays Harbor while highlighting people and issues connected to the river along the way. Our coverage is compiled at www.chronline.com/Chehalis-River.
Around last spring, the Office of the Chehalis Basin (OCB) and its board members began taking a keen interest in the Skookumchuck Dam and its reservoir.
Since 1970, TransAlta has operated the Skookumchuck Dam along the namesake river about 10 river miles upstream from Centralia — where it flows into the Chehalis River — and 8 miles east of Bucoda.
The dam holds back water TransAlta uses for the Centralia Steam Plant, which is set to retire its final coal burner in 2025. When the doors are shuttered, the dam and reservoir will join the list of coal power infrastructure that various entities will seek to repurpose.
In 2007 — just by coincidence — the reservoir was holding less rain water than it does in a normal fall season. When the flood began, the dam ended up holding back water that would have inundated Centralia and Bucoda. Though the 190-foot high, 1,340-foot long earthfill structure was not built for water retention purposes, this made the OCB wonder if it could be repurposed as such.
According to OCB Executive Director Andrea McNamara Doyle, the Skookumchuck River is also a “stronghold” for spring Chinook and steelhead. The dam, however, marks the stopping point for fish runs.
The OCB began studying the area to see if alterations to or removal of the dam had any chance of improving outcomes for fish populations or mitigation of flood damage.
But, like fish reaching the dam, OCB hit a barrier to its studies: Weyerhaeuser.
The timber giant owns thousands of acres of forest stretching over the Skookumchuck River above the dam.
“We've been requesting access from Weyerhaeuser multiple times for over a year since around March 2021, and we haven't yet been able to secure permission from them to visit the streams in the upper Skookumchuck Basin,” said McNamara Doyle.
If they are to understand how the dam could be modified to, “reduce downstream damage or improve fish passage and aquatic species environmental conditions — or ideally both,” she said, OCB needs to get scientists with boots in the streams.
The last in-person studies done in the upper Skookumchuck Basin that McNamara Doyle was aware of were completed in 1996.
“We had hoped to get out there last summer, during the summer season and couldn't, and we've renewed our request this year in order to try to get out there this spring or summer and have not been able to get that access,” McNamara Doyle said.
Weyerhaeuser’s Public Affairs Manager Mary Catherine McAleer responded to The Chronicle’s request for comment on the matter.
“We understand there is great interest in the future of the dam and river, but until TransAlta makes a formal decision about the future of the Skookumchuck Dam, it is premature to provide access and focus on narrow technical questions, such as determining the fish habitat capacity upstream of the dam,” McAleer said in an email. “When TransAlta makes a decision concerning its position on the dam, we will be happy to collaborate with the Chehalis Basin Strategy on appropriate next steps.”
That message had not been conveyed to McNamara Doyle.
“The explanation they've told us is less about not wanting people on the land and more, they've said, about the process and the burden on them and their staff to review requests to make decisions about when and how to create access,” McNamara Doyle said.
In the past, folks who wanted to access Weyerhaeuser lands for studies related to Chehalis Basin Strategy work — the umbrella term for the variety of projects along the river to improve aquatic species habitat and mitigate flood damage — simply made requests through local on-site tree farm managers, she said. The same process applied to any groups wanting access to the company’s land for studies, including the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In early 2020, however, representatives from the timber company stated processing the requests was becoming a challenge and asked OCB to funnel questions through McAleer moving forward.
“We also offered at that time to work with Weyerhaeuser to create a more coordinated process for the requests that were related to Chehalis Basin Strategy work, and we started some of that work with Weyerhaeuser and it didn't really proceed to fruition,” said McNamara Doyle.
By summer of 2021, McNamara Doyle said, the company had not “outright refused” to grant access to the Skookumchuck and its streams on property above the reservoir, but said it was “unwilling to grant access at the time” and did not provide a path forward for OCB to approve studies on the site.
Since, OCB has made several attempts to get access to the land. The office enlisted help from the Department of Natural Resources and attempted to go through other Weyerhaeuser executives, to no avail.
Considering how important salmon and aquatic species are to communities in the Chehalis River Basin and how detrimental flood damage has been to the same communities, McNamara Doyle called the Chehalis Basin Strategy work “critical.”
“(We) are really challenged to do that work as thoroughly as we want to — and need to — without having ready access to some of this information that is only available from Weyerhaeuser and from accessing lands that are controlled by Weyerhaeuser,” she said.