Native American elders talk about a time when they would walk from riverbank to riverbank on the backs of salmon swimming in the rivers.
People still can on the White River – but the fish are dead. The Pinks and Coho can’t pass the generations-old dam, and the effort to catch and haul the fish up to the spawning sites further up river can’t keep up with the flood of fish. So the salmon simply get tired of ramming the dam with their heads. They die and float down river without spawning.
“They only have a fixed amount of energy,” Puyallup Tribal Resource Protection Manager Russ Ladley said. “They can’t get through and just give up.”
The Muckleshoot and Puyallup tribes want to change that. They want the Corps of Engineers to speed up the replacement of White River dam near Buckley, which has languished for five years in design and redesign.
“They say they don’t have the money,” Ladley said. “We have to figure out a way to get them the money.”
Pinks, for example, begin their lives as eggs laid in the 100 miles of water upstream from the Mud Mountain dam. They grow to fingerlings and make their way to Commencement Bay and the Pacific Ocean, where they spend two years maturing to between three and five pounds. They then reverse their trip and head back up the White River only to hit a 100-year-old dam. Crews from the Corps of Engineers catch some of them in the ladder and truck them five miles past the Buckley Mud Mountain dams and release them back into the river so they can swim to their spawning grounds. But that effort isn’t enough.
Latest counts had some 250,000 salmon spawning in 2009 and just 100,000 in 2011. Countless thousands die along the lower river banks after attempting to navigate past the White River dam, quite literally bashing their heads against the concrete structure in hopes of getting to calmer waters to lay their eggs. The spawning season runs through October, with the big push coming in the next few weeks. The banks then will be littered with rotting salmon carcasses.
“You need a gas mask, the dead fish smell is so bad,” Ladley said.
The cost for replacing the dam, which was installed in 1910 and upgraded with a fish ladder in 1941, hovers at about $80 million. It has been under review since it became part of the federal rehabilitation plan for salmon recovery in 2007. The current plans for replacing the dam don’t include a fish ladder to let the salmon migrate upriver naturally. The Corps plans to continue the catch-and-haul method, although adding a fish ladder would just cost an additional $5 million.
“The contingency money would cover that,” Muckleshoot Fish Commissioner Donnie Jerry said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Not only is the catch-and-haul method expensive and laborious, it also hurts the fish since the salmon beat themselves up before finding the collection pool on one side of the White River dam. About one in five fish gathered and trucked upriver still die before they can spawn, Jerry said.
The years of passing inaction to replace the dam has created a coalition of tribal and environmental groups to raise awareness of the dam. A documentary film is in the works as well.
“It’s actually worse than I thought,” said American Rivers’ Washington State Conservation Director Michael Garrity, noting that salmon recovery efforts around the South Sound really don’t matter much if the fish can’t get to the spawning grounds on the White River, which is the only river in the South Sound to have a spring Chinook run. “This is actually a very small dam. You would think that it would be the first to be fixed. This minimizes everything we are doing. Every year we see this sort of tragedy. Clearly it needs to become a higher priority.”
Not only are Chinook and Coho listed as federal endangered species; they are the life’s blood of tribal members. The fish are eaten and sold to support families, and they provide dollars to local bait and tackle shops during the fishing season. And the salmon are, as they always have been, revered for those reasons.