Guest opinion: Time for fish-killing dam to go

USEPA Photo by Eric Vance. Public domain image

It’s time to get rid of the Electron Hydroelectric Dam on the Puyallup River that has been killing salmon, steelhead, bull trout and other fish for more than a century. The dam is so old that it escapes most regulatory oversight and would never be allowed to be built today.

A last straw came in July when the dam’s owners, Electron Hydro, placed nearly 2,500 yards of old, degraded and unapproved artificial turf in the river to cushion the liner of a new diversion channel. The channel was part of a renovation project to remove the current dam and replace it with an inflatable rubber barrier.

High flows ripped open the liner and scattered the artificial turf downriver. Adding to the damage was crumb rubber in the material that came loose, dumping cubic yards of toxic plastic pellets into the river that have traveled far downstream, threatening human health, fish and wildlife. The spill could be especially damaging to threatened spring chinook and harm the tribe’s treaty protected fishing rights.

Making matters worse, dam operators killed hundreds of salmon, bull trout and other fish on July 29, when they de-watered the dam’s forebay to remove accumulated silt. The Puyallup Tribe had advised Electron Hydro that sediment needed to be removed more often. When that didn’t happen, the tribe recommended additional steps to protect the fish, but was ignored.

These events were the most recent and clear-cut damages to salmon and other species caused by the dam that was built in 1904. It has a long history of poor fish passage, which puts threatened spring chinook, bull trout and steelhead at risk.

The Puyallup Tribe objected in 2014 when Puget Sound Energy sold the dam to Electron Hydro, which has consistently demonstrated a poor record of complying with terms of the sale.

The Electron Dam isn’t much to look at. It’s only about 12 feet tall and it has no reservoir behind it like the huge dams on the Columbia River. The river is fed by rain, melting snow, glaciers and tributary creeks flowing from Mount Rainer.

The dam’s headworks are 10 miles upriver from the Electron power plant. Water is diverted into a flume to the forebay of the dam where it settles and drains into penstocks. The water then drops about 900 feet to the power plant’s turbines.

Fish that that make it to the forebay are supposed to be collected in a trap and hauled around the dam, but many are killed when they get sucked into the powerhouse. All to provide electricity to only about 20,000 homes.

Stop work orders have been issued requiring Electron Hydro to clean up the debris and stabilize the site for winter. In late November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a civil suit against the company for violating the federal Clean Water Act. Several other lawsuits are pending.

Given Electron Hydro’s track record and no oversight by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that oversees most dam operations, it’s difficult to have much confidence that a new dam would be a significant improvement or that its operation would not continue to harm the fish, wildlife and people who depend on the river.

Lorraine Loomis is chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. See www.nwifc.org.

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