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Puyallup River one of most endangered in nation, environmental group says

Tokaloo Rock stands September 2012 as a man looks at waterfalls created by the Puyallup River near North Puyallup Camp at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state. (Drew Perine / (Tacoma) News Tribune)
Tokaloo Rock stands September 2012 as a man looks at waterfalls created by the Puyallup River near North Puyallup Camp at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state. (Drew Perine / (Tacoma) News Tribune)
By Josephine Peterson Puyallup Herald

PUYALLUP, Wash. – A conservation group has named the Puyallup River one of the country’s most endangered rivers.

An environmental nonprofit, American Rivers, placed the Puyallup River at No. 4 in its endangered river list. The group said a dam on the river is hurting fish.

“It is time for the Electron Hydropower Project to implement measures that have meaningful, on-the-ground results for endangered chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout,” the conservation group said in a report issued April 14.

The Electron Hydropower Dam blocks the river in the foothills of Mount Rainier. It was built in 1903 to provide power for nearby homes. The project produces enough energy for more than 20,000 homes, according to the dam owner, Electron Hydro.

Chris Spens, director of environmental affairs for the dam, said there are many projects in place to try and get as many fish to Puget Sound as possible.

“We are as committed to work with the Puyallup Tribe to produce and protect fish as we are with renewable energy,” Spens said.

The dam was built before new legislation that protects endangered species and doesn’t include fish passage, preventing salmon from heading downstream, eventually out into Puget Sound.

Electron Hydro has taken measures to help fish cross. There are “fish steps” to help fish pass the dam, Spens said. The steps are hollow cells that allow fish to jump from one to another until they reach the other side of the dam.

The conservation group says heavy rainfall fills each step with sediment and debris, making it difficult for fish to use.

American Rivers estimated that 40% of young chinook die trying to cross the dam.

In 2014, Electron Hydro worked with the Puyallup Tribe and Pierce County to create a salmon recovery project. The project would prevent fish from entering the flume and return them to the river downstream, Electron Hydro said. The project is anticipated to be completed by 2022.

The dam also partnered with the Puyallup Tribe to create a pond upstream of the dam for chinook salmon. The tribe placed over 300,000 chinook fingerlings in the pond in early April, Spens said.

There are a handful of controversial river dams that flow into Puget Sound, including the Pilchuck Dam on the Pilchuck River, the Nelson Dam on the Naches River, the Chambers Creek Dam near Steilacoom and the Enloe Dam on the Similkameen River.

A state study in 2018 by the Orca Task Force on saving endangered orcas showed these dams can prevent chinook salmon – a staple in the orcas’ diet – from reaching the Sound.

“To feed (southern resident) orcas, we need bold action on salmon recovery now. Improving fish passage at the Electron Hydro Dam is crucial for salmon survival in the Puyallup River and in the Puget Sound,” Laura Blackmore, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, said in the American Rivers report. The Puget Sound Partnership is a state agency working to recover the Sound’s ecosystem.

American Rivers sued Electron Hydro LLC and the Tollhouse Energy Co. over the dam in 2016. The group argued the dam is not in compliance with the Endangered Species Act, a law the dam predates. The case is pending.

Electron is expected to submit a Habitat Conservation Plan to federal agencies to prove how it will avoid harming chinook, steelhead and bull trout due to project operations, Spens said.

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