Kalama River Dam Proposal
by Patrick Trotter
Earlier this year, with little fanfare, the Washington Department of Ecology issued a 180-page report titled “Columbia River Mainstem Storage Options, Washington, Off-Channel Storage Assessment Pre-Appraisal.”
With a title like that, it’s little wonder that this report slipped under the radar screens of the region’s sport fishing and fish conservation groups. To my knowledge, only one such organization took any notice, and that was the Portland, Oregon based Native Fish Society whose executive director, Bill Bakke, sounded an initial alarm in his January, 2006 Conservation Report.
But everybody with an interest in the status and plight of our wild native steelhead, salmon, and trout populations should scrutinize this report thoroughly and carefully, for what it does is identify viable sites for new dams and water storage reservoirs on Washington tributaries of the Columbia River. Undertaken at the direction of our former governor, Gary Locke, to address how future demands for Columbia River water could be met, the report states: “As the demand for both consumptive and non-consumptive uses of Columbia River water increases and the supply remains static or, as in recent years, decreases, it becomes more important to understand both the needs and the best beneficial uses of the available supply in order to satisfy the economic, environmental and social requirements of the region.” Alas, however, as Bill Bakke pointed out, wild steelhead, salmon, and trout have never competed well under western water law for the so-called “beneficial uses of the available water supply.”
Of the many new dam and reservoir sites identified in this report, the one that disturbs me most is a site proposed for the Kalama River in southwest Washington. As I read the description of this storage reservoir and comprehended just how much and what portion of the Kalama River drainage would be affected, a flood of memories came rushing back to me.
I remembered my first trip into that country, a backpacking expedition, an exciting adventure indeed for a 12 year old, with my Boy Scout buddies back in 1947. The first part of that trip was relatively easy: we were driven in a car caravan up the old county road to its end at Pigeon Springs, where the state maintained a ranger station and an old resort had occupied a site on the south side of the river. But from there it was “shank’s mare.” We hoisted our packs and with grim determination and much anticipation, set out up the trail. Our ultimate destination was the upper Kalama Falls, but on the way in and then out again, we camped along the way at a couple of places where access could be had to tributaries that one of the adults accompanying our party had told us were particularly good fishing for native cutthroat and rainbow trout. Elk Creek was one of those tributaries, I remember, and Wolf Creek was another. I remember our campsite near Wolf Creek was across the river from the Wolf Creek confluence and not far from another state ranger cabin that was set near the river bank. I also remember the deep tracts of old-growth forest we hiked through, and crossing a couple of rather deep tributary gullies on rough bridges hewn out of large logs that had fallen across. Crude wooden hand rails that somebody had nailed onto the sides steadied our crossing.
It was also up here where I got a quick glimpse of the one and only cougar I have ever seen in the wild. It was flattened on its belly atop a low rock outcropping at the water’s edge on the opposite side of the river from our overnight camp, overlooking a small, sandy beach where animals could come down to the water to drink. Nice place for an ambush. When I stepped out of the trees on my side of the river that morning and glanced across, there the big cat was, looking back at me. We made eye contact—and flash, it was gone.
I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but by 1947 the waters of the upper Kalama River were already legendary for the fishing they afforded for wild, native summer-run steelhead. Portlander and later Seattleite Mike Kennedy, one of steelhead fly fishing’s pioneer anglers, fished these waters with great success in the 1930s and early 1940s, and in doing so, popularized the Kalama Special steelhead fly, a yellow-bodied white bucktail pattern with a palmered badger hackle and red tail originally tied by Mooch Abraham, another legendary Portland area fly fisher. It was Mike Kennedy who christened the holding pools and runs immediately downstream from Pigeon Springs the Holy Water, a name well-known to Kalama River steelheaders to this day. Noted steelhead fly fishers from the Puget Sound region, men who pioneered the sport on the Stillaguamish, the Skykomish, and the Skagit, also visited the Holy Water and its environs frequently, including Walt Johnson, Rick Miller, and Ralph Wahl. Another Seattleite, Enos Bradner, in his book, “Northwest Angling,” first published in 1950 and republished in 1969, called the Kalama River “a wonderful steelhead stream with a fine winter run and one of the best runs of summer fish in the state” (emphasis mine).
In recent years, that fabulous run of Kalama River summer steelhead has dwindled to a whisper along with all of the other wild steelhead populations comprising the Lower Columbia River steelhead ESU, which is listed as threatened under the U. S. Endangered Species Act. Construction of a new water storage reservoir on the Kalama River, as proposed in the “Columbia River Mainstem Storage Options” report, would, in my view, all but doom any chance for recovery of the Kalama River wild population.
According to the report, the proposed dam would be sited at river mile13.3, which would place it about 2.5 river miles upstream from the lower Kalama Falls and the Washington State fish hatchery located just above. Back in the “good old days,” prior to the fish hatchery and construction of a fishway, lower Kalama Falls marked the upstream limit of winter steelhead distribution in the Kalama River. Seasonal flows were such that the falls was passable only by the summer-run fish that then held in the deep, clear pools and runs of the waters upstream for the next several months until they spawned. With the opening of the fishway, winter fish too could occupy these waters.
At the site of the proposed dam, the terrain pinches in sufficiently to make it feasible to impound a reservoir with a full-pool surface elevation of 800 ft. Using my Topo software, I printed out and matched up a set of maps of the upper Kalama River drainage. I then traced out the 800-ft contour and colored in the proposed reservoir. I was even more disturbed by what that revealed. At full pool, the reservoir would extend up the mainstem Kalama as far as river mile 29.1, or just under 16 river miles, to just about the place where my Boy Scout party had camped below the Wolf Creek confluence back in 1947. Submerged completely would be the present fly fishing-only water from Summers Creek upstream to the closure just above Pigeon Springs, including Mike Kennedy’s fabled Holy Water where steelhead fly fishing on the Kalama had its beginning. Pigeon Springs itself would be submerged, as would the site of Weyerhaeuser’s old Camp Kalama logging camp a few miles further upstream.
In addition to the almost 16 miles of prime summer steelhead holding water and spawning riffles in the mainstem, several tributary streams important for spawning and early rearing would be flooded as well, including:
• 3.3 miles of the Little Kalama River;
• the lower 1.5 miles each of Summers Creek and Knowlton Creek;
• 2.8 miles of Wild Horse Creek;
• 4.4 miles of Gobar Creek, including the rearing pond where the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife now rears winter steelhead and spring chinook salmon (also listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened);
• and the lower 2.3 miles of Arnold Creek.
Further, the confluences of numerous other tributaries would also be flooded, including those of Jacks Creek, Lost Creek, and Elk Creek (where we fished for summer trout).
To be sure, summer-run steelhead do utilize more of the Kalama River than just the segment that would be impounded. A state fisheries biologist once told me that a few fish swim up the North Fork Kalama, which joins the mainstem at about river mile 34.3, a little over 5 river miles above the head of the proposed reservoir, and I have personally seen summer steelhead as far upriver as river mile 36.3, where Weyerhaeuser and later the University of Washington operated a fishery research station (for reference, the upper Kalama Falls, our destination in 1947 and a beautiful spot I have returned to many times since, is located at about river mile 36.8). But the waters that comprise the heart of Kalama River summer steelheading, and provide by far the major portion of the river’s already depressed wild summer steelhead production, would be flooded out by the proposed reservoir.
Will this water storage reservoir actually be built? That remains to be seen. Political and policy debate has evidently not yet started on this or any other candidate site listed in the report. But a few more dry winters such as we had in 2004-2005, and who knows? The time to voice concerns about what stands to be lost is now.
The “Columbia River Mainstem Storage Options” report lists many other tributary sites as candidates for water storage reservoirs in addition to the Kalama River. I’m sure readers will find others that will upset them as much or more than this Kalama River proposal disturbs me. You can download your own copy off the internet; you’ll find it listed in pdf format on the Washington Department of Ecology web site at www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wr/cwp/cwphome.html
. Be warned, however, that it’s a monster file at 7.4 MB. If that’s too much to handle, I’m sure you can request a paper copy by contacting the Department of Ecology in Olympia.