The Skokomish River, like many waterways of the Pacific Northwest, used to be plentiful with a variety of salmon and steelhead trout.
The river changed dramatically in 1926 and 1930, when the two dams that make up the Cushman Hydroelectric Project were completed. The dams were considered engineering marvels at the time and are credited for helping to develop the city of Tacoma, Washington. However, the dams also blocked salmon from returning upriver to their native streams to spawn. And the people of the Skokomish Tribe — which means the “people of the river” in native Twana — felt the effects as the population of migratory fish declined.
Hydropower is the largest source of generation for Tacoma Power, the public power utility in Tacoma. The utility operates seven dams on four rivers in western Washington.
When Tacoma’s original license for the Cushman project expired in 1974, the city utility applied for a new one from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Getting that new license took more than 30 years and required extensive negotiations with the Skokomish Tribe, as well as coordination with local, state, and federal agencies and groups.
Among the complications: The Skokomish Tribe filed a lawsuit in the late 1990s against Tacoma and the federal government for $5.8 billion in damages attributed to the hydro project.
From adversaries to allies
Tacoma Power operated the Cushman project under short-term licenses as the litigation proceeded. In early 2009, after two intensive years of negotiations, Tacoma signed a settlement agreement with the Skokomish Tribal Nation and state and federal agencies, which paved the way for it to secure a new long-term license for the project.
The licensing agreement, which received final approval from FERC in July 2010, addressed issues that had sparked contention for many years: river restoration, instream flows, fish habitat and fish passage improvements, wildlife habitat restoration, and restoration of fish populations.
Cushman Dam No. 1, at 275 feet high and 1,111 feet long, sits on the North Fork of the Skokomish River near Hood Canal and forms Lake Cushman, which has a 23-mile shoreline. Just downstream, Cushman Dam No. 2 forms the much smaller Kokanee Lake. Dam No. 2 measures 235 feet above bedrock and is 575 feet long. The powerhouse for Cushman No. 2 sits several miles below the dam, overlooking scenic Hood Canal along U.S. Highway 101.
Tacoma’s new 50-year license from FERC, issued in 2010 but applied retroactively since 1998, allows the city to operate the hydropower project until 2048. It also has sparked a broad range of intensive efforts to improve conditions for salmon and steelhead trout.
Over the last several years, Tacoma Power has worked closely with the Skokomish Tribe, as well as a variety of local and federal agencies, to improve conditions for the migratory fish and thereby the surrounding communities.
“The Skokomish Tribe has worked very hard for many years to restore fish passage and salmon populations to the upper North Fork of the Skokomish River,” Dave Herrera, fisheries policy representative for the tribe, told ThurstonTalk, an online news platform, in 2015. “After many years of dispute, the tribe and Tacoma Power are now partners, working together to implement the conditions contained in the operating license for the Cushman project,” he said.
Mutually beneficial restoration and renovation
To boost populations of the fish, Tacoma Power worked with state and federal natural resource agencies, the Skokomish Tribe, and other stakeholders to build two new hatcheries at the Cushman Hydroelectric Project on the Skokomish River and rebuild two more on the nearby Cowlitz River. The North Fork Skokomish Salmon Hatchery, located next to Lake Kokanee, is dedicated to rearing spring chinook salmon, winter-run steelhead trout, and coho salmon. The Saltwater Park Sockeye Hatchery, on Hood Canal, is dedicated specifically to the rearing of sockeye salmon. Completing the hatcheries is one of the final pieces in Tacoma Power’s recent expansion of its Cushman fisheries programs and facilities as part of its federal license to operate the dams.
The utility also built new, innovative fish collection and passage systems aimed at establishing salmon and steelhead runs upstream of the Cushman project.
Tacoma’s “floating fish collector,” attached to Cushman Dam No. 1, collects young salmon that are migrating to the ocean. The 50-foot-wide, 100-foot-long barge pumps water and screens off fish. The utility also built a collector to catch adult fish.
As it was building the two hatcheries and fish collection system at the Cushman project, Tacoma Power noticed that migrating salmon and steelhead trout would gather below Little Falls in Mason County, Washington, unable to successfully ascend the waterfall and continue to the adult collector.
To allow salmon to be able to get up two channels of the North Fork of the Skokomish at Little Falls, the public power utility built resting pools, carved out of rock, to allow salmon to jump up the falls in a series of bursts. Weirs were put in place to maintain water elevations.
Tacoma Power noted on its website that it is not aware of any other fish passage structure created entirely out of existing bedrock.
As part of its 2010 license for the Cushman project, Tacoma Power was authorized to build new generation to capture some of the energy from the flows released into the North Fork Skokomish River. The 3 megawatts of electricity produced from that project “will help Tacoma Power meet renewable energy targets mandated by state law,” the utility said.
The terrain was difficult, and a helicopter had to be used to deliver tools and equipment. Despite setbacks, the utility was able to finish the work in less than four months.
Recognition of stewardship
In May 2017, Tacoma Power received its sixth straight Outstanding Stewards of America’s Waters Award from the National Hydropower Association, the fourth award in a row that NHA has awarded to Cushman-related projects. The award, for “recreational, environmental and historical enhancement,” honored Tacoma this year for building the two new hatcheries.
The hatcheries were recognized for their “incorporation of pioneering fish management approaches, such as circular tanks for rearing fish, an exceptional incubation system, an ultramodern chiller system for thermally marking fish, and cutting-edge computer monitoring and alarm systems,” Tacoma Power noted in a May 2017 news release about the award.
“As part of its environmental stewardship efforts, Tacoma Power’s state-of-the-art hatcheries will help reintroduce and restore fish populations in the North Fork Skokomish River,” said NHA Executive Director Linda Church Ciocci.
Tacoma Power said it has begun an extensive monitoring program to gather data on the results of its new fisheries programs. A committee made up of fisheries scientists from Tacoma Power, federal and state agencies, and the Skokomish Tribe will review the data and make recommendations on the future of the programs, the utility said.