Fix White River Dam, Fish Passage

A crumbling 103-year-old fish-blocking diversion dam and inadequate fish passage system on the White River near Buckley need to be replaced because they are leading to injury and death for hundreds of threatened salmon, steelhead and bull trout, slowing salmon recovery efforts in the river system

It’s common for some adult salmon to display a few cuts, scrapes and scars by the time they complete their ocean migration and return to spawn. That can take two to six years depending on the species.

But more and more fish are now being found at the foot of the diversion dam with gaping wounds and other injuries caused by exposed wooden boards, steel reinforcement bars and other parts of the deteriorating structure. Many of those fish later die from their injuries.

At the same time, an explosive revival of pink salmon has overwhelmed the inadequate trap-and-haul fish passage system operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. At two years, pink salmon have the shortest life cycle of all salmon and are abundant in the Puget Sound region. Pink salmon returns to the White River have shot up in the past decade from tens of thousands to close to a million.

That’s led to massive crowding of returning adult spring chinook, steelhead and migrating bull trout at the foot of the diversion dam where salmon continually try to leap over the structure – injuring themselves in the process – in their effort to move upstream and spawn. All three species are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The diversion dam, constructed in 1910, sends water from the river to Lake Tapps. The dam prevents adult salmon from reaching the Mud Mountain Dam farther upstream, which is also impassable to salmon. Instead, fish are collected in a 73-year-old trap just below the diversion dam, then trucked upriver and released above Mud Mountain Dam.

There’s been a lot of talk but no action to fix the fish passage problem in the river.

Back in 2007, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a biological opinion under the Endangered Species Act requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to upgrade the fish trap. So far, the Corps has ignored the order, claiming that it doesn’t have the money. NMFS, meanwhile, has turned a blind eye to the Corps’ documented illegal killing of ESA-listed salmon.

In 1986, only a handful of spring chinook returned to the White River, but today those returns number in the thousands because of the cooperative efforts of the Muckleshoot and Puyallup tribes, state government and others.

The Corps and NMFS need to step up to the plate and do their jobs. When they don’t, what they are really saying is that salmon, treaty rights, and years of effort and investment by so many of us here in Puget Sound don’t really matter.


Billy Frank Jr. is the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

For more information, contact: Tony Meyer or Emmett O’Connell, (360) 438-1181.