UPDATED: Gov. Inslee Pauses Work on Chehalis River Dam, Directs Agencies to Prepare Non-Dam Alternative


Alternatives: Governor Directs Agencies to Prepare Non-Dam Plan, Halts Environmental Impact Statement Work Through End of Year

By The Chronicle 

Gov. Jay Inslee this week directed the state departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife to pause work examining a possible dam in the upper reaches of the Chehalis River until January and instead use that funding to produce a non-dam alternative. 

In a letter to Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind and Department of Ecology Director Laura Watson first reported by KUOW, Inslee cited “additional and significant questions and concerns about impacts and alternatives” in making his decision. 

He noted a desire to find a balance between reducing flooding in the basin and saving struggling fish species. 

“I have requested that the Chehalis Basin Board provide recommendations on the process for addressing some of these concerns, particularly the development of a basin-wide, non-dam alternative to flood damage reduction and evaluating the potential to avoid, minimize, and mitigate the impacts of the flood retention and other flood risk reduction projects,” Inslee wrote. 

Inslee also wrote a separate letter to the Chehalis Basin Board, noting concerns brought to light recently. 

“I value the important work that you do to advance consensus-based, win-win solutions for flooding and fish in the Chehalis Basin. The complex challenges facing our communities require science, collaboration and innovative thinking to forge lasting solutions,” Inslee wrote. “Recent work evaluating a proposed large-scale flood retention project on the upper Chehalis River has brought additional and significant questions and concerns about impacts and alternatives. 

Lewis County Commissioner Edna Fund, who sits on the Chehalis Basin Board, said she’s viewing the pause in the EIS and Inslee’s directive on a non-dam alternative as an opportunity. 

She noted that the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority — a separate group from the state’s Chehalis Basin Board, had previously looked at non-dam options. 

“We can bring all of that up to date,” she said.  “With the EIS we had a lot of individuals highlight issues but we did not have the opportunity to identify how to mitigate them. We appreciate the opportunity to take a look at that.”

Fund said she particularly would like to look at ways to save spring Chinook in the Chehalis Basin. 

The Department of Ecology’s draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed flood retention facility near Pe Ell concluded that the dam would harm fish habitat but would also prevent some flooding for the Twin Cities. According to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement done by the Department of Ecology, between 1,135 and 1,280 structures would be protected by the dam from a catastrophic flood. In addition, the EIS states the project would protect roughly 13 percent of the City of Centralia’s acreage, which includes many residential areas. 

The Quinault Indian Nation and Chehalis Tribe spoke out against the project based on the potential damage to already struggling fish runs, though other governments in the Chehalis River Flood Authority voiced support for the dam. The tribes also asked, as has Inslee, for the development of a viable, large scale non-dam alternative.

The 250-foot-tall structure would include tunnels for salmon and would only be closed when flooding was predicted. 

A majority of comments received during public meetings conducted virtually just after COVID-19 restrictions went into place this spring were not in favor of the project, citing concerns based on the information listed above, concerns about the impact on the surrounding ecosystem and doubts that the project expected to cost billions of dollars would actually be effective, noting that flood conditions would have to be similar to those in 2007 for the dam to have the desired effect. 

After the EIS comment process was concluded the Chehalis River Basin Flood Control Zone District hired public relations firm Desmond & Louis Inc., which has offices in Winlock and Redlands, California, to tout the benefits of the project. 

“It’s basically to get the facts out about the project,” District Administrator Erik Martin said at the time. “One thing, as you’re aware that the EIS did not do, was talk about the benefits of this project. We feel like that’s the district’s responsibility to get the word out to the public.” 

Inslee specifically directs the Chehalis Basin Board to do three things: Create a process and timeline to develop and evaluate a basin-wide non-dam alternative; continue evaluating issues regarding the dam to “avoid, minimize and mitigate the identified impacts”; and deliver a consensus recommendation on the process moving forward by September, allowing for a long-term strategy to be considered by the legislature in 2021.

“For us to have a consensus recommendation of how we’re going to do it by September 2020, that certainly puts urgency on it,” Fund said. “I like deadlines.”

Inslee asked Ecology to pause the EIS process through the end of the year and to use funding available within the Office of Chehalis Basin budget to assist the Chehalis Basin Board develop the non-dam alternative.

Additionally, the governor asked the agency directors to improve communications with tribes and create a more structured process for tribal staff and consultants to engage when they so choose.

“Given that climate change poses a significant risk to salmon and increased flood damage in the basin, I believe that we will need the best scientific evaluation of options to preserve habitat and restore salmon runs while protecting the basin’s human communities,” Inslee wrote. “Therefore I support both agencies’ continued participation in the Chehalis Basin Strategy’s related work to assess options for mitigation and ecological restoration.”