Proposed Chehalis Dam Threatens Treaty Rights

by Ed Johnstone

Ed Johnstone

A proposed dam on the Chehalis River is a threat not only to salmon recovery, but also our treaty rights. 

It’s a step in the wrong direction as the rest of the region has moved into an era of dam removal. 

Following the massive dam removal project on the Elwha River starting in 2011, dams have been torn down all over the world, including on the Nooksack and Pilchuck rivers in 2020. The conservation group American Rivers reports that 57 dams were removed in the United States in 2021, and 25 more dams will come down in 2022. 

The idea of a dam on the upper Chehalis River comes from the Chehalis Basin Strategy, a state initiative that aims to both reduce flood damage and restore salmon habitat.

It is true that something must be done to protect the lower Chehalis basin from devastating flooding like the catastrophic flood of 2007. However, based on a review of the state’s draft environmental impact statement, it’s clear that a new dam would all but guarantee the demise of the spring Chinook in the Chehalis basin and speed up the decline of coho, fall Chinook and steelhead, as well as lamprey.

My mentor Billy Frank Jr. always said, “Tell the truth. Tell your story.” Our story is that our treaty right is a property right to harvest salmon. My tribe, the Quinault Indian Nation, is the only tribe with treaty-reserved rights to fish, hunt and gather in the Chehalis basin.

Given how hard the Quinault people have fought to exercise their treaty rights to fish, and the precarious state of salmon, the Quinault Nation cannot support a dam that would destroy yet more habitat that salmon need to survive and someday thrive once again.

A dam is not the only solution, and it’s irresponsible not to look at other alternatives. When the state’s draft environmental study supported our concerns that a dam would be deadly to aquatic species, Gov. Inslee called for the development of a non-dam alternative to reduce flood damage. 

Work on the Local Actions Non-Dam (LAND) alternative is now underway, and we are optimistic that it will include proven, cost-effective actions like flood-proofing and raising homes, and voluntary relocation to get people out of harm’s way. These actions are far more compatible with the Chehalis Basin Strategy’s habitat restoration goals through the Aquatic Species Restoration Plan.

Even if a dam worked as planned, it would only reduce the peak flood elevation in the cities of Centralia and Chehalis during the most severe floods. The sponsor of the dam, the Chehalis River Basin Flood Control Zone District, said in its purpose and need statement that the dam “would neither protect communities from all flooding, nor would it be designed to stop regular annual flooding from the Chehalis River.”

The state’s draft environmental impact study found that 2,955 existing structures are at risk of inundation during a catastrophic flood, but the proposed dam would protect only 1,280 of those. With a likely $1 billion price tag, this project would save fewer than half of those buildings.

This would come at the cost of losing one of the top habitat restoration opportunities in the entire state. Historically, the Upper Chehalis River was one of three strongholds in the Chehalis basin for spring Chinook.

Salmon strongholds are not just places where fish are found in large numbers — they are also keepers of the genetic and spatial diversity that make salmon so resilient and able to adapt to changes in their environment. Restoring the conditions salmon need to rebuild that diversity is just as important to recovery as boosting their numbers.

We must act now to prevent a new dam from being built on the Chehalis River. Over the next year, the state and federal governments will each issue their final environmental impact statement, and the project could move into the permitting phase in early- to mid-2023. 

Meanwhile, the Chehalis Basin Strategy will seek a new round of funding from the state Legislature, and the Chehalis Basin Board will develop long-term recommendations to the governor and Legislature that may, or may not, include a dam.

Instead of a dam, we need to focus on LAND alternatives to build climate resilience for Chehalis basin communities and economies, for today and long into the future. 


Ed Johnstone is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission ( This column represents the natural resources management interests and concerns of the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington. 

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