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Inslee puts Chehalis dam on hold, calls for non-dam fixes for river's woes

caption: An artist's rendering of a proposed flood-control dam on the Chehalis River in southwestern Washington during non-flood conditions.
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An artist's rendering of a proposed flood-control dam on the Chehalis River in southwestern Washington during non-flood conditions.
Washington Department of Ecology

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee has put a hold on the proposed Chehalis River dam.

Inslee told two state agencies planning a dam on the biggest river in southwest Washington to suspend their work until January. He ordered them to use the resulting savings to plan for non-dam options to reduce flooding.

Flooding along the Chehalis River has long been a problem, especially when it shuts down Interstate 5.

A local government body, the Chehalis River Basin Flood Control Zone District, proposed building a 250-foot-tall dam in the upper part of the river basin, near the town of Pe Ell, and expanding a levee near the Chehalis-Centralia airport to help hold back floodwaters.

In other parts of Western Washington, on the Elwha, Nooksack and Pilchuck rivers, dams have been coming down.

The Chehalis proposal has been controversial, with tribes and salmon advocates fighting it.

The dam would temporarily flood up to 850 acres of forest land. It would only hold water back during floods and would include tunnels for salmon to swim through.

Still, the project’s environmental impact study concluded the dam would harm salmon and steelhead populations and the river’s water quality.

“Our salmon harvests are dwindling as it is,” Chehalis Tribal Chair Harry Pickernell Sr. said. “So anything to maintain or improve our salmon harvest and our water quality in our basin is what the Chehalis Tribe is striving for.”

The Quinault and Chehalis tribes, both of which catch salmon in the Chehalis River, say other measures, like restoring floodplains and relocating buildings and roadways, can reduce flood damage without hurting salmon.

"Is it restoration, is it buying land from owners, is it work on I-5? We don't know," Pickernell said. "That's our job now as the Chehalis Basin Board to find that solution that satisfies both farmers, the loggers and the salmon harvesters."

The board, set up by the governor's office in 2017, provides oversight for efforts to reduce flood damages and restore aquatic habitat in the Chehalis Basin.

Lewis County Commissioner and Chehalis River Basin Flood Control Zone District board member Edna Fund could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

Correction 7:00 a.m., 7/25/20: An earlier version misstated Lewis County Commissioner Edna Fund's title.

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