Army Corps' foot-dragging is damming salmon to a cruel fate

Late summer is here, and with it, salmon are returning to Puget Sound area rivers to spawn.

It’s an amazing annual occurrence, one that many of us head out to witness firsthand. And it’s something Puget Sounders take pride in; while there remains a lot of work left to do to restore Puget Sound salmon to healthy numbers, thousands of salmon still return to rivers that flow through the Puget Sound metropolis of more than 3 million people.

Recovering salmon in Puget Sound is difficult work, but one common sense measure that can be taken is to ensure that these iconic fish are not blocked from their headwaters by dams that lack adequate fish passage. That’s why the outdated dams on the Elwha were removed and why state-of-the-art fish passages have been installed at dams on the Cedar, Green, and Baker rivers. We have been successful at ensuring fish passage on most of the larger rivers around the Sound.

But there’s a glaring exception to this progress, where access to salmon spawning grounds is impeded by the crumbling little Buckley Diversion Dam. It’s off the road to Crystal Mountain and Mount Rainier National Park, hidden from view.

Some years, thousands of fish are killed at the dam, which was built in 1941 and never renovated. Salmon impale themselves on the decrepit facility’s exposed rebar, and they fail to locate or find space in the dams’ outdated and undersized fish trap.

Even if the fish make it into the overcrowded trap — where they are supposed to be captured and trucked to spawning grounds upriver — they’re often so tired and injured that their chances of surviving are compromised.

These problems are particularly bad during odd-numbered years like this one, when large numbers of returning pink salmon (a good thing in general, but one that highlights the problems at the Buckley Dam) effectively crowd out threatened species like chinook, steelhead and bull trout — fish that the region and the nation are spending billions of dollars to restore around the Sound.

For local Indian tribes like the Muckleshoots and Puyallups, the fish kills caused by Buckley dam are particularly painful. Tribal cultures, economies, and ways of life depend on the healthy, sustainable White River salmon fishery jeopardized by the Buckley dam.

Fixing the dam — the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — is not complicated. It includes two basic elements.

 • The dam itself should be repaired so it can withstand high river flows, avoid injuring or killing salmon on rough and sharp surfaces, and provide predictable downstream flows that successfully attract salmon to its fish passage facility.

 • The fish passage facility — including the fish trap and trucks used to take salmon, steelhead and bull trout upstream — needs to be enlarged and modernized. Outright dam removal is unlikely because the small dam — when modernized — could serve as a good place to collect fish for transport above Mud Mountain Dam, another, larger dam a short distance upstream of Buckley.

To date, the Corps of Engineers has shamelessly dragged its feet despite the fact that NOAA’s Fisheries Service called in 2007 for Buckley Dam to be modernized to ensure that the dam — and the Corps — are in compliance with the Endangered Species Act.

All around the Sound, modern fish passage facilities are ensuring that native fish get upstream safely. If fish passage can be provided at relatively large dams on the Green, Cedar, and Baker rivers, the Corps of Engineers can ensure that salmon can get above a small dam on the White River.

It’s too late to save most of the fish that will be harmed by Buckley dam this year, but it’s not too late to fix it for future salmon runs. If the Corps hears from our elected officials and the public that this old, defective dam along the road to Mount Rainier will no longer be “out of sight, and out of mind,” we could see real progress by 2015, the next big pink salmon return.

Michael Garrity is the Washington conservation director for American Rivers. He lives in Tacoma.