A river divides public opinion: proposed dam has critics and fans

Alternatives for flood mitigation and fish habitat restoration divide speakers at hearing

About 100 people attended an Oct. 27 public hearing at Montesano City Hall about the Chehalis Basin Strategy.

The two priorities for the Chehalis Basin Strategy are flood damage reduction and aquatic species habitat restoration. Released earlier this fall, the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) of the Chehalis Basin Strategy offers four “Action Alternatives” to achieve the strategy’s goals. The EIS also considers the option of doing nothing.

At the public hearing, opinions were divided between Alternatives 1 (construction of a dam) and 4 (restorative flood protection, partly through relocation of homes and farms).

Chrissy Bailey, EIS project manager with the Department of Ecology, provided an overview of the alternatives and the goals of the EIS prior to the public hearing.

The Chehalis Basin is home to about 140,000 people and has endured five catastrophic floods within the last 30 years. The flooding has inundated homes, displaced families, destroyed farms and shut down Interstate 5. The option of doing nothing will cost about $3.5 billion in flood damage over the next century.

Doing nothing also will negatively impact fish and other aquatic species with the threat of climate change. Currently, the Chehalis is the only river basin where salmon are not listed as endangered species.

Communities throughout the river basin have addressed flood damage and habitat issues through flood proofing with farm pads, updated bridges and culverts and improved roads.


After the presentation, members of the public were invited to provide testimony. About 20 people spoke, most in favor of Alternative 4 with some speaking in favor of Alternative 1.

Members of the Chehalis and Quinault tribes, among others, said they would not support a dam because of the impacts to traditional cultural practices and archaeological sites — in addition to the impacts to aquatic species habitats. Farmers and landowners in Lewis and Grays Harbor counties supported the dam because of the protection provided to homes, farms, businesses and existing infrastructure.

Some suggested building a dam was contrary to current practices where dams are being removed from other river systems, such as the Elwha on the Olympic Peninsula. Fish passages blocked by dams have been opened and rivers restored to more natural states.

By 2020, four hydroelectric dams along the Klamath River in Oregon and California will be removed, allowing for about 400 miles of river to flow freely. Removing the dams was cited as more cost-effective than improving them to protect fish and water quality.

Heather Walker introduced herself as a Chehalis tribal member, whose ancestors have been documented in the Basin for 10,000 years. She said the EIS was lacking and therefor decisions might be made based on incomplete information.

“It (the EIS) does not take into account the 250 archaeological sites that are along the Chehalis River. It does not take into account the traditional cultural places where my family has been gathering their traditional resources since time immemorial,” Walker said.

“None of the alternatives provide enough information to make these decisions,” Walker said.

Teri Franklin, of East Grays Harbor County, said she worked on the Chehalis Basin Partnership. She said about $220 million had been spent on habitat restoration in the Basin, and that investment would be lost if the dam was put in.

The dam, said one speaker, was specific to helping Lewis County with floods and did nothing for communities downstream. Others questioned why new development was occurring in the flood plain in Lewis County.

“There’s not a river with a dam on it that doesn’t have an endangered fish on it,” Ron Figler-Barnes of Elma said. He said river restoration helped floodwaters recede much faster.

Another perspective was offered by Elma farmer Al Zepp. Zepp said his home and property was riverfront. In Zepp’s opinion, the impact to fish appeared minimal with the dam, which would protect farmers and others whose livelihoods were injured by flood damage.

“I’m for a retaining dam — I’m a farmer and I think we should have water when we need it…,” Zepp said.

“We need to fix this for our kids and grandkids. When this gets built, I’ll be dead and gone…We’re talking generations out. Option 1’s the only one. Two and 3 are Band-Aids and 4 is not legal,” Zepp added. “There’s no way to do option 4 with the Growth Management Act. It’s one or none. Build the damn dam. Stop pissing our money away and do something.”

Others in favor of the dam said Alternative 4 was insupportable because the costs to buy out people from their homes and lands is astronomical, if not impossible. Costs associated with relocation were based on assessed values instead of a more realistic market value. Families and communities would be displaced by Alternative 4.

“The report did a really good job on estimating how many fish would return, but it says nothing about how many people would return,” Lewis County resident Tim Dyeson said. Without a dam, Dyeson said his home could be under six feet of water.

Jonathon Meyer, of Lewis County, said building the dam would protect the most people and also help fish.

Montesano resident and councilman Dan Wood spoke in favor of Alternative 1 and the dam.

“Doing nothing is not an option. Protecting I-5 is not an option because the rest of the area is vulnerable. Alternative 1 gives us the opportunity for controlling too much water at times and making sure we have enough water for fish, with the enhancements are going to be good for fish,” Wood said. “If it’s not enough, we need to fix that…Treaty rights have to be honored and if that isn’t in this Alternative 1, then that more work needs to be done.”

“Move forward with Alternative 1, but fix it. Let’s fix it now so that everything is taken care of,” Wood concluded.

Some suggested that none of the action alternatives provided a solution. Kris Wilson said he was a forester, angler, white-water kayaker and a native of Grays Harbor.

“Selling a dam as fish enhancement is absolutely ridiculous. No salmon ever thought life got easier because a dam went in. Why not do some enhancement without the dam? I think there’s things that can be done to help the flooding. I’m not necessarily for option 4 either. I don’t want to displace families and I don’t want to buy people’s land when they’re forced to sell,” Wilson said.

“I would be far more in favor of doing nothing than building a dam or forcing people to leave their homes,” Wilson added.


One of the options is the No Action Alternative. No action implies nothing is done but in actuality, local efforts to abate flooding would continue as would habitat restoration projects. Because the efforts are not coordinated throughout the basin, the benefits would be localized and minimal. The next major flood still would cause widespread and substantial damage and the aquatic species habitat would continue to degrade. The No Action Alternative has a hefty price tag of $3.5 billion.

The greatest reduction in flood damage comes under Alternative 1 and the construction of a dam with either a permanent or temporary reservoir. Also included in Alternative 1 are airport levee improvements, an Aberdeen/Hoquiam North Shore levee and other local-scale flood damage reduction actions. This action alternative is recommended by the Governor’s Chehalis Basin Work Group.

This option would “potentially significantly adversely affect some populations, species or life stages of salmonids and lamprey.” But, when alternative 1 is combined with aquatic species habitat actions, the impacts are lessened across the basin. Habitat would be restored but with the least benefit.

Other adverse impacts include reduced water quality in regards to temperature, dissolved oxygen and turbidity. Permanent losses to wetlands and forested areas would occur with the construction of the dam.

Adverse impacts to tribal resources would occur to treaty-reserved fish resources, the report says, along with impacts to traditional cultural practices. The full extent of the impacts is not known as the

If a large-scale earthquake were to strike when the reservoir is full, downstream communities could be impacted — although the structure would be designed and built to withstand such an event.

The public comment on the EIS has been extended to Nov. 14. More information is available at chehalisbasinstrategy.com. The final environmental impact statement will be released in 2017.