Makah Tribe Removes Dam On Wa’atch Creek To Benefit Fish

NEAH BAY (Sept. 5, 2003) – You can hear Wa’atch Creek flowing again after more than 50 years of silence. That’s because the Makah Tribe removed a fish-blocking dam on its reservation that will open about a mile of salmon habitat on the stream near Neah Bay and offer a template for those who want to remove small dams inexpensively.

The dam was built in 1958 by the U.S. Air Force to increase the water supply to the base. Sediment from a logging operation above the dam filled the reservoir shortly before the Air Force abandoned the Neah Bay base in the late 1980s.

“In addition to adding instream habitat for fish, removing this dam will open several acres of wetlands important for juvenile fish rearing,” said Andy Ritchie, biologist for the Makah Tribe.

The 25-foot dam was removed at a cost of about $150,000. Winney Logging of Forks, the contractor selected to remove the dam, placed large logs in the stream bed below the dam and in the reservoir behind the dam to act as sediment filters. The area along the stream has few large trees that can be incorporated into the creek once it starts flowing.

“The idea is to provide nature with the tools to do its own healing,” said Ritchie. “Wood creates microhabitats that allow fish to thrive.”

The logs are being used in an innovative approach to control the inevitable sediment flow downstream
once the dam is removed. “I’m using natural systems as my inspiration for this project,” said Ritchie.
“We’ve also learned a lot about how wood functions in streams from observing engineered log jams we have installed to restore natural function to the Sekiu River.”

The trees will create small mini-dams in the old reservoir and farther downstream, trapping sediment and slowing the river’s flow. While the creek’s flow adjusted following the dam’s removal, some of the native fish and plants were temporarily moved until the stream stabilizes.

Chinook, coho and steelhead are all expected to benefit from the re-opened habitat. Removing the reservoir will also enhance fish habitat by reducing water temperatures known to harm fish.

The stream has been intensely monitored preceding the dam’s removal and monitoring will continue for several years. Additionally, the tribe is monitoring an adjacent stream in the watershed to provide a comparison. “It will help us see what events are part of the stream’s adjustment and what things may be climate-driven,” said Jeff Shellberg, the tribe’s hydrologist. How the stream establishes a channel once the dam is removed will be a primary focus of the

“There are hundreds, maybe thousands of dams like this in the nation that aren’t serving any purpose right now. I hope this provides inspiration that they can be removed with little cost and great benefit to fish. – D. Preston