The Hemlock Dam is Coming Down

It’s an exciting summer for steelhead in the Wind River watershed, WA. Starting this week, a dam removal is taking place all summer long on Trout Creek, a tributary to the Wind River, located in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The Hemlock Dam Removal is the result of many years of hard work building partnerships and developing designs and plans to remove this 26 foot high dam, an aging concrete structure that been a serious barrier to steelhead passage on Trout Creek since it was constructed in 1935 as an irrigation dam for the old Wind River Nursery.  The dam was determined to be a High Hazard dam, which means it could fail, resulting in danger to human life, especially as the reservoir behind it was frequently used as a swimming hole. When I visited Hemlock Dam before the dam removal began, I was shocked at how close the swimming area was to the dam – it would not take much for someone to get swept over the dam!  The reservoir also was a huge heat source for the creek – temperatures in it sometimes reached 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer, conditions which are dangerous and even lethal to steelhead.

Through our Community Based Restoration Partnership grants program with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, American Rivers was able to provide $75,000 in grant funding for this dam removal project which is being implemented by the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Lots of other partners have provided funds and support, including Ecotrust, Bonneville Power Administration, Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and several others.  The project kicked off the week of July 6th with fish rescue and removal efforts in the creek and in the reservoir behind the dam.  The reservoir was drained and the water diverted downstream through big pipes.  This makes deconstruction of the dam much easier and feasible, and also provides an opportunity to net and rescue fish.

I was fortunate to be able to help out one day with the fish rescue, and was impressed by the amount of volunteers that day – hauling buckets, netting fish, counting and tagging fish, etc. It really was a team effort, and you could tell that folks were really excited about this dam removal – it’s not every day that you see an entire river system beginning to be opened up and restored to natural hydrologic conditions,  and fish passage greatly enhanced.  Turns out, this is the first dam removal to occur on Forest Service lands in the Northwest too.  The steelhead must have wondered what all the fuss was about, but they will hopefully soon benefit from a totally new river.  The next time they migrate upstream, they won’t be faced with a concrete dam that blocks them from reaching cool spawning and rearing habitat further upstream.  Exciting times indeed!

To see live action from the Hemlock site every day this summer, check out this webcam courtesy of the Forest Service. Also, check out our photo stream to see images of the dam before and after the dam removal project started.