Tacoma Power has spent millions to install mechanical devices for getting fish around its Cushman dams to honor a 2009 legal settlement with the Skokomish Tribe.
Among the improvements: A fish-collection system at the utility’s lower dam complete with a tram to move adult fish up the 175-foot dam.
But fish don’t make it to Cushman Dam No. 2 for that ride toward spawning grounds if they can’t get past Little Falls two miles downstream. As the utility worked to rebuild fish populations, experts noticed that migrating salmon and steelhead would gather below Little Falls, unable to ascend.
Tacoma Power could have solved the problem by bolting a pre-manufactured aluminum or steel fish ladder to the rock, Generation Manager Pat McCarty said. But that wouldn’t have protected the beauty of the culturally significant spot, which was once prime fishing grounds for the tribe.
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So the utility collaborated with tribal officials, environmental consultants, and regulatory agencies to create a more natural-looking fish ladder at the Mason County location. They came up with a plan to ease fish passage by carving ascending resting pools into existing bedrock in the two channels of Little Falls.
The site presented challenges. Located 200 feet down a steep canyon trail, it required that all equipment was either hand carried, or helicoptered in, McCarty said. Workers did the bulk of work using jack hammers or hand chippers, then loaded debris into sacks which were helicoptered out.
The result, Tacoma Power lead biologist Matt Bleich says, is a “complicated balance” of aesthetics and function. The four-month, $900,000 project was completed in September.
For its efforts, the utility recently won its fourth consecutive Outstanding Stewards of America’s Waters Award from the National Hydropower Association. The association cited the utility’s “commitment to the community and ecosystem.”
Tacoma Power’s Cushman operations weren’t always so well regarded. For decades, the Skokomish Tribe fought Tacoma Power, claiming damages in excess of $5.8 billion from its dam operations on the North Fork Skokomish River.
The parties’ 2009 settlement ended a long-running battle over the dam’s relicensing. In exchange, Tacoma Power agreed to rebuild fish runs on the North Fork and to give the tribe $12.6 million in cash, a share of value of electricity produced by No. 2 powerhouse and $23 million worth of land.
Joseph Pavel, whose great-grandfather, George Adams, filed the first lawsuits against Tacoma soon after construction of the Cushman dams in 1926 and 1930, says the Little Falls project is an outgrowth of the cooperative relationship the tribe and utility have forged.
“We entered into this settlement working hard to implement positive conditions,” said Pavel, the tribe’s natural resources director. “We’ve developed a real positive working relationship.”