Quinault Nation files petition seeking removal of the Skookumchuck Dam


The Quinault Indian Nation has petitioned the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to order the removal of the Skookumchuck Dam, which the tribe claims blocks roughly 21 miles of salmon spawning habitat.

In the petition, the Quinault Tribe asked the WDFW to declare the structure an impediment to fish and order its removal immediately “upon closure of the Centralia Steam Generation Plant, but no later than the end of 2025.”

“We have a once-in-a-generation chance to make a huge improvement in conditions for salmon and the health of the river. Dam removal has proven over and over again to be one of the fastest and best ways to bring salmon back from the brink of extinction and put them on the road to recovery,” Quinault Indian Nation Councilman John Bryson Jr. said in a statement. “For the State of Washington, it’s a chance to do something big to back up its words to save salmon and deliver on treaty rights.”

In an email, an agency spokesperson said “WDFW has received the petition and we are reviewing it.” TransAlta, which owns and operates the structure, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Thursday.

Jannet Brimmer, an attorney representing the Quinault Tribe, said state law allows for a review period, and the agency must cite “evidence-based reasons” for denial.

In an announcement, the Quinault Indian Nation notes it’s the only tribe with treaty rights on the Skookumchuck River and the Chehalis River.

According to the tribe, the 1856 Treaty of Olympia guaranteed its right to fish at its “usual and accustomed fishing grounds and stations” among other rights, in exchange for ceding its historical lands in Southwest Washington.


Potential alternatives

The dam, built in 1970, sits about 10 miles northeast of Centralia on the Skookumchuck River and provides power to a coal burner the company plans to shutter in 2025 through a longtime deal with the state. As the initial purpose of the dam becomes obsolete, questions have arisen in recent years about whether the structure should be removed or renovated.

In 2021, the Office of the Chehalis Basin (OCB) began to study potential alternatives, including removing the structure altogether. In a summary report published in December 2022, a report estimated that a full dam removal could cost between $25 to $35 million.

The report notes removal could eliminate water rights downstream of the dam, meaning “there would be a need for compensation or replacement of water rights that could add up to $80 million.”

“Based on the results of this second phase of analysis of Skookumchuck Dam options, it appears that the most promising alternatives to consider further are the Fish Passage Only or Combined Fish-Flood alternatives,” the report reads.

According to the report, alternatives include installing a new fish sluice that would send fish to a flume “that could either return all the way to the river downstream of the dam or end at a holding area for downstream transport of fish via tank truck.”


Impact on water rights

The 2022 report notes that TransAlta does not support either full or partial removal “because it would be incompatible with their newly established water bank.”

A water bank is a concept in state law that allows the Department of Ecology to mark water rights as being used, therefore not being subject to relinquishment, according to previous reporting by The Chronicle.

Under state law, water rights holders must prove they use the amount of water their rights allow for or face losing them. Established in 2021, TransAlta’s water bank allows the company rights to 28,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Skookumchuck River, the largest year-round bank in the state.

One acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre in a foot of water, and a 28,000-acre chunk over Lewis County would touch Galvin, Schaefer County Park, Newaukum Golf Course and Claquato.

In a statement announcing the petition, the Quinault Indian Nation said Ecology erred when granting TransAlta’s water bank, and that “the largest amount” the agency should have granted was 21,430 acre-feet. In the process, the Quinault Tribe said Ecology failed to consider salmon and treaty rights, and how the water could be used for other “fish and public benefits.”

“TransAlta owns the dam. The company does not own the river. The river is a public resource and with the purpose of the dam coming to an end we have a tremendous opportunity to enhance the resilience of the river ecosystem for the benefit of people and salmon,” Brimmer said in a statement. “Instead, the TransAlta water bank will perpetuate the significant harms from the dam while over-promising water that is getting more and more scarce in the face of climate change.”

Impact on salmon

In the complaint, the Quinault Tribe claimed the dam blocks access to historic spawning salmon habitat and alters the flow of the river.

Larry Lestelle, a consulting fish biologist with the Quinault Indian Nation, said the largest and best spawning habitat was destroyed by the dam and currently lies under the dam’s reservoir.

“Salmon were already declining due to habitat loss from intensive logging and other land uses so when the dam came along and cut off access to prime spawning grounds, it was a final blow to bringing them back to self-sustaining levels,” Lestelle said. “If we free the river, restoring access to spawning grounds and returning the river to a more natural flow regime, we should see a significant boost in abundance as shown with other dam removals in Washington State and elsewhere.”

In an email, Lestelle said he anticipated that recolonization of salmon would be “quite rapid” in the Skookumchuck River were the dam to be removed.