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WA Dam Removal Brings Hope for NW Fish, Orcas

The Nooksack River is crucial salmon habitat for the Northwest. (Patrick McNall/Flickr)
The Nooksack River is crucial salmon habitat for the Northwest. (Patrick McNall/Flickr)
June 18, 2020

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- Construction crews have begun work to remove the Middle Fork Nooksack Dam near Bellingham, restoring a crucial river for salmon.

The project is decades in the making and is critical as fish species in the Northwest dwindle.

Steven Day, project engineer for the City of Bellingham Public Works Department, says it opens up 16 miles of spawning habitat for salmon, steelhead and bull trout.

"The project itself has been listed as the single most effective fish passage project in the Nooksack watershed for a period of over 15 years," he points out.

Restoring the river is important for the endangered Southern Resident orcas of Puget Sound, which have declined in numbers as salmon populations have dropped.

Project partners include the Nooksack Indian Tribe, Lummi Nation, the organization American Rivers and the state of Washington.

Dam removal has required creative thinking.

Over the past 50 years, the dam has been a vital part of Bellingham's water supply. But Day and the city have come up with a solution. He says the new system will be installed slightly upstream from the old dam and is a win-win for the city.

"It will not create a waterfall or other step within the river that creates a passage issue and will still provide for municipal water supply to the citizens of Bellingham," he explains.

American Rivers joined the project in 2017, getting the ball rolling on removal with funding from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

April McEwen, river restoration project manager for American Rivers, says she hopes this can inspire other projects in the region.

"That's just a tremendous story of hope and also what we can do with our future," she states. "We can meet our own future needs better without creating so much impact on the life support systems that we all depend on."

The dam is scheduled for demolition in July.

The Middle Fork Nooksack River is expected to flow freely in September for the first time in 50 years.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA