Science, Tech & Environment

Aging dam in Washington State a death trap for spawning fish


The fish trap at Buckley Dam has not been updated since the 1940s. With the massive influx of pink salmon, managers can’t separate out the endangered Chinook, Steelhead and Bull trout from the pink salmon. (Photo courtesy of Resource Media.)

If you follow the Puyallup River inland from Commencement Bay and hang a left up the White River, you will eventually come to the Buckley diversion dam.

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It's a small dam, only about 15 feet high, but it's very old and very dangerous for fish.

Russ Ladley stands in the shallows below the dam with a haunted look in his eye. He's a fisheries biologist with the Puyallup Indian Tribe. Pink salmon carcasses litter the rocks around his feet.

He nudges one with his boot.

"This is a female, right here. Full of eggs," he said.



The National Academy of Sciences just released a report detailing the results of federal efforts to rebuild depleted fish stocks — and found mixed results.

But in the Pacific Northwest, scientists have seen a considerable recovery of stocks of pink salmon. Just now hundreds of thousands of pink salmon are swimming back to spawn in the rivers and streams there.

But it's not always a happy outcome for many fish that choose the White River east of Tacoma.

Thousands of them are dying, due to an outdated dam, and the inability of federal officials to transport the salmon round the obstacle to safe spawning grounds upriver. 



The silty waters writhe with fish, still fighting. Some of them are visibly battered and lethargic. Others continue to heave themselves onto the lower section of the dam‚ their bodies scraping over old, exposed nails.

Ladley says this goes on all day, every day, until the fish die and their bodies are pushed back downstream.

Ladley estimates that up to 200,000 fish will die here in the next month, during the height of the pink salmon run.

There is no hydropower being generated at this small dam. The Army Corps of Engineers traps fish here and then loads them into trucks and drives them around a much larger dam six miles upriver.

That dam was built in the early 1940s for flood protection, without any way for fish to get around it. The recovery of salmon in this river depends on their ability to get above these dams to spawn.

The fish kills have gotten worse in the last decade as pink salmon have started coming up the White River by the hundreds of thousands.

Scientists aren't exactly sure why these fish are rebounding in Puget Sound, as other types of salmon suffer, but Ladley says this old trap and haul facility can't handle all the pink salmon, nor can it sort out the endangered Chinook, steelhead and bull trout that also come up this river.

"It is no longer effective. These pink runs have come out of nowhere and they've overwhelmed the system. There are more fish here now than the Corps can effectively move," he said.



The Army Corps spends an extra $600,000 moving the massive influx of pink salmon around these dams.

They've added four more fish-hauling trucks that operate around the clock.

That's allowed them to move up to 20,000 fish a day but the tribes estimate there are more than double that arriving right now.

Fred Goetz, a biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers, acknowledges the trap-and-haul facility isn't up to the task of moving all the fish that get stuck below the dam.

"We're at our capacity. If there are more we're going to do our best to move that backlog," he said.

Fully replacing the Buckley Dam would cost close to $80 million. Goetz says the Corps doesn't have that kind of money right now.

Instead it hopes to spend about half that amount and replace the old dam, but not improve the fish trap.

"We're doing everything we can right now, especially when we don't have a lot of funding and we may not see very much in the future," Goetz said.

The Muckleshoot and Puyallup tribes say replacing the dam isn't enough.

The old fish trap also needs to be replaced. That way the tribes can focus recovery efforts on endangered Chinook and bull trout that get mixed in with the hundreds of thousands of pink salmon in the river.

Don Gerry, a member of the Muckleshoot tribe, serves on the tribal fish commission.

"We need to take care of them, and the federal government isn't doing their part," he said, standing next to the Buckley dam. "They're the ones that caused the problems with the decline of the salmon. We're left with the burden of trying to rebuild it."

The Army Corps says it could be at least eight years before the dam is replaced.