Tag Archives: Skokomish River restoration

Spring Chinook return to the Skokomish River to start a new salmon run

Spring Chinook salmon are being reared at a new hatchery on the North Fork of the Skokomish River. The hatchery is owned and operated by Tacoma Public Utilities. // Photo: Tacoma Public Utilities

For the first time in decades, an early run of Chinook salmon has returned to the Skokomish River in southern Hood Canal.

These bright, torpedo-shaped hatchery fish are the first of what is expected to become an ongoing run of spring Chinook as part of a major salmon-restoration effort related to the Cushman Hydro Project. Eventually, the salmon run could provide fishing opportunities for humans and orcas.

“it is pretty exciting,” said Dave Herrera, fish and wildlife policy adviser for the Skokomish Tribe. “Our objective has always been to restore the salmon populations that were once here.”

Andrew Ollenburg, Cushman fish facilities manager for Tacoma Public Utilities, reported that 19 spring Chinook — 15 females and four males — have been captured at the base of the lower Cushman Dam on the North Fork of the Skokomish River. As of this week, biologists estimated that 50 or 60 spring Chinook were in the river farther below the dam — and more are coming.

These fish are among the survivors of 131,000 yearling Chinook released into the North Fork in 2016. That was before two new fish hatcheries were constructed as part of a wide-ranging legal settlement that cleared the way for a new federal hydropower license for the Tacoma-owned dams. The dams, built in the 1920s, blocked fish passage until recently, when new facilities were built for trapping and moving fish past the dams. For background, see Water Ways, Jan. 13, 2009.

Before the dams were built, the Skokomish River supported a variety of Chinook salmon runs, including both spring and summer Chinook in the North Fork. Some of the most productive habitat was inundated by Lake Cushman above the upper dam, but the dams were not the only problem facing salmon in the watershed.

“In brief, a combination of effects, escalating in intensity over time, far exceeded the productive resiliency of the indigenous populations for sustaining themselves,” states the “Recovery Plan for Skokomish River Chinook Salmon” (PDF 15.5 mb). “Hydro development, water diversion, floodplain development, estuarine alterations, liquidation of old growth forests, greatly expanded fishing patterns — all of these contributed to the extinction of the aboriginal Chinook populations in the Skokomish River.”

After the dams were built, a small number of spring Chinook continued to spawn in the North Fork below the dams during years when flows were adequate. But official documents from the early 1990s calls the spring Chinook extinct.

Eggs for the new run of spring Chinook came from fish returning to the Marblemount Hatchery, located on a tributary of the Skagit River in North Puget Sound. They were reared for a year at the Lilliwaup Hatchery on Hood Canal before their release into the North Fork. That hatchery is managed by the group Long Live the Kings.

Biologists reported the first of the adult spring Chinook swimming up the North Fork in June, a few weeks later than their counterparts returning to the Skagit, Andy said. These fish had farther to go to reach the southern end of Hood Canal, he said, but they should be ready for spawning in about two weeks — on schedule with those returning to Marblemount.

“Tribal biologists were the first to spot them in the river,” Andy said. “They said they don’t look like any Chinook they’ve ever seen before.”

He said the fish appeared sleeker, somewhat like a torpedo, as opposed to the rounder-looking fall Chinook that return to other hatcheries in the area.

“We don’t know how long the run will last,” Andy said, but hatchery managers will take steps to keep the early Chinook separated from a fall hatchery stock in the Skokomish.

This year’s spring Chinook returns to the North Fork will be used to collect eggs for the next generation to be reared at the new hatchery. More eggs will be needed from Marblemount until enough fish return to the North Fork to provide about 450,000 eggs each year. That will typically require about 100 females, Andy said.

If things go well, some of the spring Chinook returning to the Skokomish will eventually be released above the dams to spawn in the upper North Fork, where pristine habitat awaits them in Olympic National Park. This stock could also be used to rebuild a run of spring Chinook in the South Fork. Details are yet to be worked out in consideration of habitat quality and genetic consequences for fish that would spawn naturally.

Some of the Chinook returning this year could be 3-year-old “jacks” released in 2017. That year, 400,000 eggs were started at Lilliwaup before the newly hatched fish were transferred to tanks at the new hatchery for rearing. Since then, eggs from Marblemount have been taken directly to the new North Fork hatchery. Further testing is expected to reveal how many jacks arrived this year among the first spring Chinook run in modern times.

Andy said excitement is running high as people recognize the start of the new salmon run, which is expected to evolve more localized traits based on conditions in Hood Canal. The new hatchery also is being used to supplement existing stocks of coho salmon and steelhead trout surviving in the Skokomish River system.

A second new hatchery has been built at Saltwater Park on the shore of Hood Canal near Hoodsport. The goal is to restore a run of sockeye salmon — a species that migrated in and out of a much smaller Lake Cushman before the dams were built.

The new sockeye hatchery is receiving eggs from the Baker Lake Hatchery, located on a tributary of the Skagit River in North Puget Sound. After hatching, the sockeye fry are placed in Lake Cushman, where they will grow until they begin their migration downstream. A collection facility on the lake uses flowing water to attract the downstream migrants, which are then moved past the dams. I wrote about the sockeye restoration for the Kitsap Sun in July 2014.

For additional details about the two hatcheries, check out the article and photos by the National Hydropower Association. Additional information can be found on the website of Cushman Fisheries Program.

Skokomish restoration makes progress in federal funding arena

UPDATE: June 12, 2016
The Skokomish River ecosystem restoration project, as proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers, remains on track. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on May 25 unanimously endorsed the Water Resources Development Act, which would authorize the project. The legislation must still be approved by the full House and Senate.
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After decades of in-depth studies and anxious waiting, restoration of the Skokomish River ecosystem took a major step forward today, when a committee of the U.S. Senate endorsed the $20-million effort as part of a larger legislative package.

Skok watershed

The Skokomish restoration was one of many projects that sailed through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee as it passed a $9-billion authorization bill on a 19-1 vote. The bill must still be approved by the full Senate and House, but supporters of the Skokomish restoration were thrilled with the light at the end of the tunnel.

Rich Geiger, project engineer for the Mason Conservation District, has been shepherding the Skokomish effort for as long as I can remember. I asked him how it feels to finally see some action in Congress.

“It feels really really good,” he said slowly, emphasizing each word.

The restoration program consists of five separate projects along the Skokomish River. Although not designed for flood control, these projects for improving ecological health are expected to reduce flooding along one of the most frequently flooded rivers in the state.

The restoration effort has received support from far and wide. As Rich likes to point out, experts generally agree that Puget Sound cannot be restored without restoring Hood Canal, and Hood Canal cannot be restored without restoring the Skokomish River.

Sen. Patty Murray has been a strong advocate for the project.

“The waters of Hood Canal and Puget Sound are essential to the Washington state environment, economy, and our way of life,” the senator said in an email, “so I am proud to fight for investments in the restoration of the Skokomish River. This critical work will restore habitat and wetlands and improve fish passage, which in turn supports salmon recovery — all necessary to maintain our precious natural resources.”

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said improving the health of the Skokomish River would be a boon for Mason County and the entire region. He said he applauded the efforts of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team, the Skokomish Tribe and area residents who worked together to shape the restoration program.

“This project ensures we can better protect critical species like salmon … while restoring more natural areas for folks to explore,” Kilmer said in an email. “That will help bring more visitors to recreate in this watershed while protecting it for future generations.”

The $9-billion authorization bill, known as the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (PDF 4.1 mb), includes money requested by the Army Corps of Engineers for water-related projects across the country. In additional to restoration efforts, the bill includes authorization of projects related to flood control, dredging, drinking water emergencies, water treatment and pipelines. For a summary of the bill see the report to the committee (PDF 284 kb).

The bipartisan endorsement and near-unanimous support offers hope that the needed money will be approved in a future appropriations bill tied to the budget, Rich Geiger told me. He is also optimistic that the 35-percent state/local match will be made available through state grants or a legislative appropriation.

“Now that have an approved plan, we are coming to Washington state with a funding request that is much larger than normal,” Geiger said. “This is a little unprecedented.”

The federal share for the project would be about $13 million and the state share nearly $7 million.

Some money has already been provided for engineering work, Rich said. If things go well, the final designs can be ready for the start of construction in October of 2019.

These four projects would come first:

Confluence levee removal: This levee was built with old cars at the confluence where the North Fork flows into the mainstem of the Skokomish. Some 5,000 feet of the levee would be removed. A small channel would be created to allow water from the mainstem to flow into the North Fork and return at the existing confluence. Large woody debris would help direct water into the channel. Estimated cost: $7.5 million.

Wetland restoration at river mile 9: The existing levee would be breached in four locations, and a new levee would be built some 200 to 300 feet farther away. The levee would allow for minor over-topping but would not increase the flood risk. Estimated cost: $2.4 million.

Wetland restoration near Grange: Larger breeches are planned for the levee near the Grange hall at river mile 7.5 to 8. A new levee, up to 10 feet tall and 2,900 feet long, would be constructed 1,200 feet farther back with no increase in flood risk. Locations are still under discussion. Estimate cost $3.3 million.

Side channel connection near Highway 101: An old remnant channel between river mile 4 and 5.6 would be restored to take water from the mainstem at high flows. Woody debris would help define the inlet and outlet to the channel, which would become a ponded wetland at low flows. Estimated cost: $3.1 million.

The fifth project would be constructed over two years in 2020-21:

Large woody debris: Upstream of the confluence with the North Fork, large woody debris would be installed. Large clusters of trees with root wads, as well as some single trees, would be placed between river mile 9 and 11, as measured from the estuary in Hood Canal. Estimated cost: $3.2 million.

The original plan for the Skokomish, as developed in an early report by the Army Corps of Engineers, called for more projects and would have cost closer to $40 million.

Some of those other projects are being funded through other programs, such as the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. For example, the reconnection of a stagnant section of Weaver Creek to the free-flowing Purdy Creek is scheduled for this summer using SRF Board money.

In addition, numerous man-made logjams are being planned to create salmon habitat, reduce sediment flows and stabilize the stream channel. Also, preliminary designs and discussions are underway to relocate Skokomish Valley Road, a main route into the Olympic Mountains. Moving the road would allow for the removal of levees, river bank restoration and a reconnection to about 60 acres of floodplain.