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‘Removing the Middle Fork Nooksack dam is one of the most important salmon restoration projects’

Removing the Middle Fork Nooksack River dam

Washington state has provided $10.5-million to remove a small city of Bellingham dam that channels Middle Fork Nooksack River water into Lake Whatcom. The dam is blocking access to spawning and rearing grounds for endangered salmon.
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Washington state has provided $10.5-million to remove a small city of Bellingham dam that channels Middle Fork Nooksack River water into Lake Whatcom. The dam is blocking access to spawning and rearing grounds for endangered salmon.

A small dam that channels Nooksack River water into Lake Whatcom will be removed next year in an effort to help endangered salmon and, by extension, southern resident killer whales, proponents said.

The city of Bellingham’s dam has been diverting water from the Nooksack’s Middle Fork since 1962 to supplement its main source of water, which is Lake Whatcom — the drinking water source for nearly 100,000 residents of Bellingham and Whatcom County.

The diversion is intermittent and occurs primarily during winter and spring, the city of Bellingham said on the project website.

Located about 20 miles east of Bellingham, the dam will be history in 2020.

“Removing the Middle Fork Nooksack dam is one of the most important salmon restoration projects in Puget Sound,” Wendy McDermott, Puget Sound and Columbia Basin Director for American Rivers, said in a statement.

American Rivers, a conservation group, is a key partner in the project, which will include moving the city’s intake of Middle Fork water upstream.

The state Legislature recently set aside $10.5 million in its capital budget, providing a big chunk of the estimated $16 million-plus needed for the project, according to Stephen Day, project engineer for the city of Bellingham’s Public Works Department.

The dam is about 25 feet tall and 150 feet wide.

Middle Fork Dam
A total of $10.5 million in state dollars will allow the city of Bellingham and its partners to move ahead with a project to remove the city’s small diversion dam on the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River in 2020. City of Bellingham Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Water from the Middle Fork is carried to Mirror Lake via a 1.6 mile-long tunnel and 9.5 mile-long pipe. From Mirror Lake, the water flows into Anderson Creek, which ends in Lake Whatcom.

The dam’s presence cuts off access to spawning and rearing grounds for spring chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout. The three are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Chinook are the main source of food for the endangered orcas, whose numbers have dropped to just 74 — alarming scientists and others who love the Pacific Northwest icons.

Removing the dam will allow the salmon to once again gain access to 16 miles of habitat in the Middle Fork and its tributaries, according to a project overview.

The salmon and the whales are cultural symbols — and, in the case of salmon, an important food source — for the Nooksack and Lummi tribes in Whatcom County, who are among the public-private coalition working to remove the diversion dam.

The Nooksack and Lummi tribes approached the city in 2000 about removing the dam that was blocking the fish.

Breaching the dam here isn’t the only such effort to take out dams as part of decades’-long, at times frustrating, efforts to save endangered salmon and orcas. It’s being considered for the lower Snake River dams, and the proposal is being criticized by some lawmakers and farmers.

Members of the Upper Skagit Tribe fish for sockeye salmon on the Baker River near the town of Concrete, Washington, Wednesday, July 5, 2017. What was once a summer long tradition of living on the river and fishing has been reduced to four to six

With other funding already in hand, the state dollars provide much of the money needed for the dam’s removal on the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River.

Other parts of the project include:

Redesigning the way in which the city pulls water from the Middle Fork.

“The existing intake system at the dam site will be removed when the dam is removed. A new intake structure will be installed on the south bank of the river, approximately 700 feet upstream of the existing dam location,” Day said.

“The new intake system is configured such that it will not block the river or impede fish passage,” he added.

Building a fish screen to protect fish by keeping them out of the intake structure.

State legislators approved a two-year $4.9 billion capital budget on Sunday, April 28, 2019, that included allocations for a number of Whatcom County projects.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.
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