More than 80 years ago, President Calvin Coolidge pushed a button that energized Cushman Dam No. 1 on the North Fork of the Skokomish River. The hydroelectric dam dewatered the North Fork, wiping out salmon runs upon which the Skokomish Tribe has always depended.

Cushman Dam No. 1 was joined a few years later by Cushman Dam No. 2, built just downstream. Neither dam allows fish passage. Together, the two dams reduced water flows to a trickle, altering the biology and geology of the river system, and deeply affecting Skokomish tribal culture and treaty-reserved fishing rights. On March 7, after decades of efforts, tribal member Dave Herrera pressed a button that restored a small part of the North Fork’s historic flow from Dam No. 2.

“While we are happy to see part of the river’s flow returned, we will continue working to restore a more normal flow regime to the North Fork,” said Tom Strong, Skokomish deputy tribal manager and tribal council secretary. “It has been a long battle to get water back to the North Fork.”

After decades of struggle between the tribe and the dams’ owner, Tacoma Public Utilities, a decision by the federal courts has required the restoration of flows up to 240 cubic feet per second (cfs) into the North Fork. Before the construction of the dams, the average annual flow was 847 cfs.

The flow of the Skokomish River main stem, which feeds off the North Fork and runs through the tribe’s reservation on Hood Canal, has been impacted severely by sediment buildup and flooding. Tribal
treaty-reserved rights to fish, hunt and gather have been affected—traditional fishing sites on the river are unusable because of either too much or too little water. The lack of water in the North Fork has impacted shellfishing beds at the river’s mouth on Hood Canal. The South Fork has reduced flows, causing excessive gravel buildup and dry sections during salmon spawning season.

The increased flow is expected to widen the North Fork and deepen the pools of water that juvenile salmon and trout rely upon for rearing. This is especially important for juvenile steelhead and coho, which rear in freshwater for up to two years. Higher flows will increase and enhance spawning habitat for chinook and steelhead and increase egg-to-fry survival of salmon when emerging from gravel egg nests in the spring.

But the 240 cfs is not enough to help rebuild the lost habitat, said Marty Ereth, the tribe’s habitat biologist. A varied range of flows would best benefit the environment. Good salmon habitat includes deep pools for resting and feeding, and logjams for shade, keeping water temperatures lower.

“It is not all that we hoped for, but this is an important step in the right direction,” Strong said.