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Potential Chehalis River dam threatens treaty rights

As removal of two fish-blocking dams on the Elwha River dams nears its end, I’m scratching my head.

Why is a proposal to build a brand new dam on the Chehalis River watershed in Lewis County receiving serious consideration? And why is the Quinault Indian Nation being left out of the discussion?

There is no question that terrible flooding has occurred on the Chehalis during recent decades. People’s lives and homes have been damaged and destroyed. I-5 has been closed for days.

But much of that damage has been caused by encouraging development in flood prone areas and by the unwillingness of short-sighted politicians to enact proper flood plain management systems. While a few entities have taken steps to restrict development in harm’s way from flooding, others have not. Building more dams is not the answer. Condemning an entire ecosystem and subjecting everyone who lives in the basin to the long term effects of a dam is not the best or the only way to fix the problem.

I thought we had learned our lessons about dams by now. All over the country dams are being taken out to try to undo the damage they have done to critical natural processes.

Time and again, dams have been proven to kill fish and destroy the natural functions of the watersheds after they’re built. We need to be looking forward when it comes to natural resources management. Building a flood control dam on the Chehalis is backward thinking that doesn’t contribute to sustainability of our natural world. We need to do whatever we can to avoid damage before it is done.

Flood control dams prevent the river’s natural floodplain from doing its job to help reduce the effects of flooding. While a dam may reduce how often floods occur, it can’t prevent the biggest, most damaging floods from happening.

The Chehalis River basin – the second largest in the state – already is heavily damaged. More than 1,000 failing and under-sized culverts block access to more than 1,500 miles of salmon spawning and rearing habitat.

A huge network of poorly maintained logging roads is loading silt into the river and smothering salmon egg nests. At the same time, forest cover in the basin is quickly disappearing, reducing shade needed to keep stream temperatures low for salmon.

A dam would only make things worse. The only thing it would be certain to do is harm salmon and steelhead at every stage of their life cycles and damage natural functions that are vital to every living thing in the Chehalis Basin.

Unfortunately, the state of Washington refuses to recognize that as a co-manager with treaty-reserved property rights to fish, hunt and gather in the Chehalis Basin, the Quinault Indian Nation must be directly engaged in government-to-government discussions about flood control and measures to protect the health of the Chehalis Basin. It is painfully clear that the Quinault’s treaty rights will suffer severely if a new dam is built. Yet the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority, which is due to make its recommendations on flood control measures this time next year, flatly refused to even allow the Quinault Nation to sit at the table.

Ongoing loss and damage of salmon habitat threatens tribal treaty rights. Through the tribal Treaty Rights at Risk initiative, we are asking the federal government to protect our rights and lead a more coordinated effort to recover and protect salmon in the region. One of our recommendations is a requirement that federal funding for state programs and projects be conditioned to ensure the efforts are consistent with state water quality standards and salmon recovery plan goals.

That’s what should be done on the Chehalis. Preconditions should be established before allowing any federal funding to be spent to study or begin permit review processes. As a start, commitments must be made to fully protect the ability of the Quinault Nation to exercise its treaty protected rights by addressing harmful impacts on fish, wildlife, and ecological processes.

All governments in the Chehalis Basin must be required to ensure that future development in flood prone areas is not allowed.

Federal agencies, the state of Washington, and the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority need to sit down with the Quinault Nation. Together, they need to address flooding issues while also meeting the needs of the natural resources and everyone in the Chehalis basin whose culture, food and livelihoods depend on those resources.

Billy Frank, Jr. is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. For more information, contact Tony Meyer or Emmett O’Connell at (360) 438-1180 or www.nwifc.org.