America’s Most Endangered Rivers for 2014: White River

Washington

Threat: Outdated dam and fish passage facilities
At Risk: Salmon, steelhead, and bull trout populations

WhiteRiver, WA | © Stephanie Sarles

WhiteRiver, WA | © Stephanie Sarles

Washington’s White River is a haven for salmon and steelhead, iconic fish treasured by tribes and recreational anglers. However, these fish are blocked by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mud Mountain Dam and are often killed at its unsafe and outdated fish collection facility at the Buckley Diversion Dam a few miles downstream. To protect salmon and steelhead runs which are critical to river health, the Corps must pledge to design and implement a new state-of-the-art fish passage system by 2017.

The River

Originating from the Winthrop, Emmons, and Fryingpan glaciers on Mt. Rainier, the White River travels 68 miles and drains 494 square miles before flowing into the Puyallup River and Puget Sound. The White River is enjoyed by kayakers, fishermen, hikers, and visitors to Mt. Rainier National Park and the surrounding area. The river is home to four species of salmon (Chinook, coho, chum, and pink), as well as steelhead and bull trout. The river’s salmon and steelhead are central to the culture of the Muckleshoot and Puyallup Indian tribes.

The Threat

White River, WA | © Eric Marner, Muckleshoot Tribe

The outdated Buckley Diversion Dam kills thousands of salmon and steelhead every year | © Eric Marner, Muckleshoot Tribe

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Over $150 million in taxpayer funds are spent each year to restore salmon to rivers and streams around the Puget Sound. This investment is undermined every year when thousands— even hundreds of thousands in some years— of salmon and steelhead die at the antiquated and dangerous Buckley Diversion Dam fish collection facilities on the White River, due to the poor condition of this dam and its undersized fish trap. The Buckley fish trap was built in 1941 and is no longer sufficient to transport the large numbers of salmon attempting to return to their spawning grounds above Mud Mountain Dam. Even if salmon do make it into the overcrowded fish trap, they are often exhausted, delayed, impaled on rebar, and/or injured from the cramped holding facilities, which reduces their chances of survival after release.

Routine temporary repairs to Buckley Dam require sharply reduced water releases from the upstream Mud Mountain Dam, drying up 29 miles of river and stranding juvenile fish migrating to Puget Sound. Worst of all, as many as hundreds of thousands of adult salmon are left to die below Buckley Dam before they can spawn. The highest mortality takes place during pink salmon runs, which occur every odd numbered year in Puget Sound rivers.

Buckley Dam’s failure as a fish passage facility is ironic— since it ceased diverting water to a hydropower project 10 years ago, the Buckley Dam’s primary purpose has been to serve, however poorly, as a fish passage facility for the much larger Mud Mountain Dam five miles upstream.

Since 2007, NOAA Fisheries has stated that repairing the dam and upgrading the fish trap is necessary for the Corps to meet its legal obligations under the Endangered Species Act to protect threatened Puget Sound Chinook and steelhead, but the Corps has failed to take action. This failure to act is particularly egregious because the White River Chinook salmon run includes a wild spring run component that NOAA Fisheries has determined must be restored if the larger population of Puget Sound Chinook salmon is to recover.

What Must Be Done

As operator of the Buckley Diversion Dam and owner and operator of the fish trap and Mud Mountain Dam, the Corps must pledge to design and install a modern diversion structure and updated fish trap by 2017— the soonest feasible time for completion of such a project while avoiding another massive fish kill during the 2017 pink salmon run. Replacing the dam and fish trap is a relatively modest investment (approximately $60 million) in light of the billions spent to date to protect and restore Puget Sound salmon. Modern fish trap facilities exist on nearby rivers like the Baker and Cedar, and there is no reason for the White River— and its rare Puget Sound spring Chinook salmon population— to lag behind. The Corps has an obligation to provide safe, timely, and effective fish passage. Meeting its obligation to the White River and its salmon means the Corps must allocate funding for a complete fix to the dam and fish trap.