From atop the new and nondescript concrete highway bridge crossing State Route 508, the Newaukum River looks more like a stream: bigger than a creek, but smaller than a true river. It cuts through the flat plain of Lewis County east of Interstate 5 and Onalaska.
“This is a million-dollar bridge,” said Kirsten Harma, watershed coordinator of the Chehalis Basin Lead Entity — a coalition of tribal, local and state government agencies, as well as citizens focused on salmon recovery in this area.
This bridge is one small piece of a decades-long, multimillion-dollar effort to restore shrinking Chinook salmon and steelhead runs to the Chehalis River Basin. With the old bridge and culverts removed, the shoreline could return in time to a state that fosters healthy salmon runs.
Butlawmakers will have to balance salmon needs with human ones. South of the hamlet of Pe Ell, a proposed flood control dam on the Chehalis upstream of the Newaukum could provide relief from floods that sometimes stretch all the way to close I-5. But some worry the upstream dam could inhibit all those restoration efforts. This year, several state and local agencies and entities in the basin will decide how to tackle the first phase of rebuilding the area’s salmon population, and funding the flood control dam will be at the center of the debate.
The Chehalis Basin extends from hills south of Pe Ell to the southern end of the Olympic Peninsula, occupying huge chunks of Lewis, Thurston and Grays Harbor counties. Its 2,700 square miles are veined with a network of 3,400 miles of rivers, streams and creeks that all contain numerous salmon spawning areas.
According to a 2016 report to the Quinault Indian Nation by Larry Lestelle, a Poulsbo-based fisheries biologist who has studied the Chehalis Basin for 45 years, the basin historically saw an average of 778,000 steelhead, coho and Chinook salmon swimming upstream a year. That number fell to 111,8000 in 2003 and to 75,500 in 2016. Without restoration, Lestelle estimates numbers could drop to 40,300, threatening local tribes and fisheries. Of those, spring Chinook are the most threatened: In 2016 only 1,500 returned. Without aid, that number could fall to 200.
None of the runs in the Chehalis Basin has been designated yet for protection under the Endangered Species Act, but local officials alarmed by the loss in fish worry that protection could come too late.
“Spring Chinook are not collapsing yet, but are on the verge of collapsing,” said Tyson Johnston, vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation.
“It is a lot easier and far cheaper to protect salmon populations before they are threatened,” said Jessica Helsley, Washington senior program manager at the Wild Salmon Center.