Photo by Mike Charest/Flickr

Help Save the Orcas? Tear Down the Nooksack Dam

By: State Representative Sharon Shewmake

Hidden away in the hills twenty miles east of Bellingham, at a bend in the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River, a half-century old dam blocks the flow from glacial headwaters. The dam diverts important drinking water for its owner, the City of Bellingham, but also cuts off access to 16 miles of important habitat for endangered Chinook salmon, steelhead, and bull trout. It is the only barrier to fish passage on this major river.

To paraphrase a former President, “Legislature, tear down this dam!”

Our southern resident orcas are struggling because their preferred prey, our Chinook salmon, are also struggling. Removing the Nooksack diversion dam would open up critical Chinook habitat, increasing the North/Middle Nooksack Watershed’s salmon abundance by a whopping 31%, according to scientists’ best estimates.

The architecture of the removal plan dates back 16 years to when the City of Bellingham first sat down with the Lummi Nation, the Nooksack Indian Tribe, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. In 2017, the partnership gained a new ally in the national advocacy group American Rivers, who in turn brought resources and support from private foundations and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

By 2019, the project was “shovel-ready,” meaning that it can start as soon as the money comes in, providing immediate jobs and immediate fish access in Whatcom County.

It’s ultimately up to the Washington State Legislature to decide whether this 16-years-in-the-making project gets the green light. To fund this project, the Legislature needs to fully fund the overarching Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration (PSAR) Fund, and I’m proud to be in Olympia working to make sure that this happens.

If the Legislature acts, the dam will be gone by 2020.

By this time next year, salmon could be venturing into breeding habitat that has been walled off since 1962. By this time two years from now, whitewater kayakers could be mapping out routes on a safer river and a culturally significant upper watershed could be well on its way to improved forest health. And the City of Bellingham could be putting the finishing touches on its new fish-safe water intake system, constructed as a part of this project, to continue providing clean, reliable water to Bellingham residents.

It’s time this dam gets removed and I’m proud to be fighting to secure the funding to make it happen. This has been a herculean effort by all the project partners and could be a big win for orcas, salmon, our community, and all of Washington State.