Volunteers have increased the odds of survival for wild salmon in Chambers Creek with a $1,200 investment and a year’s work.
Local and county officials joined the Chambers Creek Restoration Team on Thursday afternoon to celebrate the opening of the rebuilt second fish ladder at the nearly century-old dam.
Volunteers and officials said the additional ladder will make it easier for returning salmon to reach 10 miles of upstream habitat and evade predators, potentially increasing salmon runs in the future.
The dam is located directly north of Steilacoom next to the Chambers Creek Properties.
The project was made possible with grant funding, support from Pierce County and assistance from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. The county has invested $13 million in upstream improvements, including a new culvert in Leach Creek under Bridgeport Way, enlarged wetlands and several fish passages above Steilacoom Lake.
“This really is a team effort,” said team member Al Schmauder, before pouring champagne down the ladder to celebrate its opening.
The second fish ladder is an interim measure as the team pursues its long-term goal of removing the 12-foot-tall dam and restoring the estuary to its natural state. Officials are in the early stages of evaluating the dam’s removal.
Pierce County Councilman Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, praised the many hours the volunteers put in to rebuild the fish ladder. He called it “one small step of many steps we need to make to restore this watershed.”
The dam was built to hold water for use by the old Abitibi paper mill, which was closed in 2000. The second fish ladder was abandoned about 30 years ago. The county owns the dam, and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife owns and operates the fish ladders.
The fish ladder has served as a buffet line of sorts for seals that follow the salmon runs and for fish-eating ducks that greet juvenile salmon when released from the hatchery.
To give salmon another escape route, team members welded new steel channels to the sides of the existing ladder and installed 64 timbers to create 10 pools, or steps.
The project marks a major change for the state’s operations at the dam.
For years, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has trapped all returning salmon from the first fish ladder and counted them. Wild chum and coho were released to continue upstream, but that’s no longer necessary because they will swim free up the ladders.
Hatchery-raised chinook will continue to be killed and their eggs inseminated and reared. Each spring, the next generation of hatchery salmon is released to help meet the demands of sports, tribal and commercial fishermen.
The state agency will temporarily close the rebuilt fish ladder starting today as the hatchery chinook end their run. But officials will no longer count the coming runs of wild coho and chum because they don’t have a second counting machine for the rebuilt ladder. Volunteers have offered to conduct stream surveys to track their populations.
The team also is working to connect major bike and pedestrian trails for Lakewood, Steilacoom and University Place at Chambers Bay near the creek and will educate fishermen about the rules and regulations at the creek.