Skokomish Tribe, Tacoma Power Collaborate to Restore Salmon and Steelhead to the Upper North Fork Skokomish River

skokomish salmon runs
Dave Herrera (right) of the Skokomish Indian Tribe, works together with Steve Fischer (center) and Andy Ollenburg (left) of Tacoma Power to help restore salmon and steelhead to the upper reaches of the North Fork Skokomish River.

 

By Melanie Kallas Ricklefs

Skokomish Park Lake Cushman lucky dogNinety years ago, steelhead and several species of salmon spawned freely in the North Fork Skokomish River system. According to Dave Herrera, Fisheries Policy Representative for the Skokomish Indian Tribe, Sockeye salmon spent their rearing phase in a small natural lake that is now far beneath the surface of Lake Cushman. In 1926, Cushman Dam No. 1 was built by Tacoma City Light (now Tacoma Power) to provide hydroelectric power to Tacoma. The dam created Lake Cushman, and cut off spawning habitat in the upper reaches of the North Fork Skokomish River.

skokomish salmon runs
Dave Herrera (right) of the Skokomish Indian Tribe, works together with Steve Fischer (center) and Andy Ollenburg (left) of Tacoma Power to help restore salmon and steelhead to the upper reaches of the North Fork Skokomish River.

In 1930, Cushman Dam No. 2 was built, forming Lake Kokanee, and limiting fish passage to the lower reaches of the North Fork Skokomish River. Without an accessible lake in the river system to complete their life cycle, Sockeye salmon were extirpated from the North Fork Skokomish completely. Parts of the river downstream of Cushman Dam No. 2 had also become inaccessible and unsuitable for salmon and steelhead because of the low water flow released by the dam.

In 1974, when the time came to renew the license for the Cushman Hydroelectric Project, the Skokomish Tribe asked for mitigation measures that would restore fish passage and populations to the North Fork Skokomish River. After 36 years of negotiations between the Skokomish Tribe and Tacoma Power, a settlement was reached in 2010. According to Herrera, “The Skokomish Tribe has worked very hard for many years to restore fish passage and salmon populations to the upper North Fork of the Skokomish River. This project is a victory for the Tribe and all of the people of the northwest. After many years of dispute, the Tribe and Tacoma Power are now partners, working together to implement the conditions contained in the operating license for the Cushman Project.”

skokomish salmon runs
Tacoma Power has constructed an adult fish collection facility at Cushman Dam No. 2 where fish will be caught and transported around the Cushman Dams to complete their life cycles in the upper North Fork Skokomish River system. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Power.

In 2011, the collaborative project to restore fish populations began. The project includes the construction of an adult collection facility, a juvenile collection system, two new hatcheries, and habitat restoration where reduced flows have impeded the passage of spawning fish. “Tacoma Power is focused on helping re-establish fish populations in the North Fork Skokomish River,” said Tacoma Power’s Natural Resources Manager Keith Underwood. “Building the adult collection facility was one of the first steps in this important process. By next year, we should have a complete program that allows for the reintroduction of salmon and steelhead, which will provide long-term benefits to the community.”

The adult collection facility incorporates a fish trap at the base of Cushman Dam No. 2 where adult salmon and steelhead are lured into a transport hopper by increased water flow. The transport hopper is then lifted to the top of the dam by a tram system. Once at the top of the dam, the fish are sorted, measured, and marked in Tacoma Power’s new sorting facility. After sorting, some of the fish will be transported to locations upstream of both Cushman dams for spawning, while others will go to one of the new hatcheries for breeding purposes.

The new Saltwater Park Sockeye Hatchery, on Highway 101 in Hoodsport, will be dedicated to raising Sockeye salmon. The North Fork Skokomish Hatchery (at Lake Kokanee), will raise steelhead as well as Spring Chinook and Coho salmon. According to Steve Fischer, Tacoma Power’s Manager of Major Projects, both hatcheries are expected to be operational this fall. In the meantime, the Skokomish Tribe obtained Spring Chinook fry from the Marblemount Fish Hatchery, and are rearing them at the Long Live the Kings Hatchery in Lilliwaup.

skokomish salmon runs
Tacoma Power Fish Technician Charles Duber selects a fish to measure in the new sorting facility at Cushman Dam No. 2.

To get to the transport hopper, spawning fish have to navigate Little Falls, a natural waterfall two miles downstream of Cushman Dam No. 2. Reduced water flows released by the dam have turned this natural feature into a fish passage barrier. According to Andy Ollenburg of Tacoma Power, as water flow is reduced, water velocity increases over the rocks, making it impossible for salmon to swim up and over the falls without tiring. To mitigate this situation, Tacoma Power cut a series of resting pools into the rocks, which allow fish to rest between leaps on their way up the falls.

Juveniles hatched (and reared) above the Cushman Dams will be collected in a floating surface collector on Lake Cushman where they are sorted by size. The smallest fish will be returned to the lake to continue their life cycles, while the larger fish will be transported downstream of Cushman Dam No. 2 via truck and the tram system to continue their voyage downstream.

The North Fork Skokomish River has generated hydroelectric power for the city of Tacoma for almost 90 years. Prior to that, it provided habitat for native salmon, which the Skokomish Tribe used for sustenance and ceremonial purposes. Thanks to the cooperative effort between the Skokomish Tribe and Tacoma Power, the North Fork Skokomish River may again provide critical salmon habitat, while continuing to generate power for Tacoma into the future.

 

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