Submitted by Larry Seaquist for Pierce County Executive Campaign.
A plan to increase Chinook salmon. Sitting high up on the shoulder of Mt. Rainier, the historic Electron dam channels water from the Puyallup River to one of Washington’s original electrical power generation plants. Still in full service, powering 20,000 homes at a time when clean hydro power is more needed than ever, the owner, Electron Hydro, began a project earlier this year to increase fish survival at the dam and add a new “acclimatization pool” in which up to a million Chinook salmon raised by the Puyallup Tribe hatchery could be released into the river. Electron Dam CEO Thom Fisher said his goal was to show that dams and fish could work together for the net gain of the environment.
Installation of the new fish aids required the replacement of part of the old dam with a modern, high-tech spillway — in-river work to be done during the summer low-water season. With approvals from state regulating agencies — Ecology, Fish & Wildlife — and a permit from Pierce County, the work ran into a snag in July. Temporary backing for the liner of the bypass channel failed, sending rubber from old AstroTurf mats downstream, as later reported in a series of stories by Seattle Times and The News Tribune.
Too many regulators? After weeks of inaction and with the initial cleanup of the spilled materials complete, Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier stepped in. In an 11 September letter requiring Electron Hydro, the project’s owner, to “take advantage of summer low flow conditions,” Executive Dammeier imposed a list of fourteen, detailed steps to be performed “immediately.” With major rains in our near-term forecast, the “low flow” status of the river is nearing its end per seasonal forecasts of high river flows which usually begin early in November.
Here’s the problem: The owner-operator-construction manager is juggling directives from at least three different regulators. After months of work at the site, the recent fourteen-step instructions from the County in Mr. Dammeier’s letter and other guidance from county officials and two state agencies still do not appear to add up to a coherent, integrated engineering approach to the hydrodynamic realities at the construction site. In the face of these multiple, short-term directives, it is understood that the dam operator stopped all work pending clear, sound instructions. But the river doesn’t stop. A temporary, bypass spillway is in use. Very few days remain to safely button up the site for the winter — or risk a potentially massive washout with profound downstream impact.
Coordinated, sound-engineering decisions needed now. A coherent, long range action plan is needed to resolve the multiple agency guidelines, meet the Puyallup Tribe’s concerns, and deal with the hydro-engineering realities of the site. In view of the County’s assertion of plenary authority, it appears that PIerce County has that responsibility. “It is not enough to write a letter,” said Seaquist. “We need to see the county put authoritative engineering expertise and inspectors on site to assure the work proceeds to a rapid, fully safe conclusion in the next very few days.”
Seaquist reiterates his calls for an investigation. “The first priority is protecting the river and future salmon runs,” said Seaquist. “But we also need to know how this happened and what was the responsibility of the county and the regulators for providing coherent guidance based on sound engineering backed up by expert on-site inspection. The Puyallup River and its salmon runs are priceless assets. We need to see much more expert leadership by the county in the future.”