This is the second in a five-part series by SOS and American Rivers spotlighting the ecological and community benefits associated with previously completed dam removal/river restoration projects in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Second in the Series: Removing the Middle Fork Nooksack Dam (2020)
By Isabella Bledsoe
Location: Northwest Washington State - and the ancestral homelands of the Nooksack Indian Tribe and the Lummi Nation
The Middle Fork Nooksack River, as its name suggests, lies between the North Fork and the South Fork of the Nooksack River. All three rivers converge into the mainstem Nooksack River, draining glacier water from Mt. Baker into Bellingham Bay. This 75-mile-long river system historically supported abundant populations of Chinook salmon, Coho salmon, steelhead, mountain whitefish, bull trout, and other fish species.
The river is also a vital life source for local indigenous communities including the Nooksack Indian Tribe and the Lummi Nation. However, the river system was disrupted when the Middle Fork was dammed to divert water to the nearby city of Bellingham in 1961. Shortly after the dam was built, it obstructed fish passage and disrupted the traditional practices of the surrounding indigenous communities, who used the watershed for hunting, gathering, and cultural and spiritual practices.
The Middle Fork Nooksack Dam was 25 feet tall and 125 feet wide and sat approximately 20 miles from the City of Bellingham. For 60 years, the dam served to divert water from the river to supplement the city’s main water supply source, Lake Whatcom. Flowing through tunnels and pipes into Mirror Lake, then onto Anderson Creek, and finally into Lake Whatcom, diverted water contributed to drinking water for over 100,000 residents.
Yet, the dam was built without fish passage and immediately blocked access to 16 miles of river, further harming and stressing fish species, including three species now on the Endangered Species Act list: Chinook salmon, steelhead, and bull trout. The Nooksack Tribe and Lummi Nation began advocating for dam removal, and in the early 2000s, entered into an agreement with the City of Bellingham and the state of Washington to find a solution to fish passage issues.
“Rivers are vital to life, and when we remove a dam and let a river flow freely, people, fish and wildlife, and the economy can all benefit,” - April McEwen, associate director of American Rivers’ River Restoration Program and project manager.
Unable to find a feasible solution, the project completely stalled in 2016. The following year, American Rivers joined the dam removal effort and contributed funding provided by Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. This formal backing and financial assistance drew key interests back to the negotiating table, and eventually developed an agreement on how to remove the dam and, importantly, continue to serve Bellingham’s water needs. Collaboration between tribes, the city, the state, and federal agencies, as well as private funding and partner organizations like American Rivers, ultimately made dam removal possible. The final cost of the project was about $20 million. To restore the river system, almost 60 years after construction, the Middle Fork Nooksack Dam was breached in the summer of 2020, restoring access to 16 miles of river and tributary stream habitat. “Rivers are vital to life, and when we remove a dam and let a river flow freely, people, fish and wildlife, and the economy can all benefit,” said April McEwen, associate director of American Rivers’ River Restoration Program and project manager.
Benefits of River Restoration
Given that the Middle Fork Nooksack Dam was removed just last year, the ecological, cultural, and economic benefits of this dam removal project are still unfolding. However, there is already cause for celebration. First, relocating Bellingham’s water supply intake slightly upstream and positioning it so that the city can remove water throughout the year, regardless of flow conditions, allows the city of Bellingham to continue to meet its water needs. Additionally, this new intake structure has a sophisticated design to protect migrating fish, including a fish exit pipe that allows fish to escape the intake structure to return to the river and fish screens to protect fish from entering into the structure. This new water diversion infrastructure will continue to supply water to around 100,000 residents in a reliable manner.
Middle Fork Nooksack Dam removal was also essential for restoring salmon populations. Before dam removal, NOAA Fisheries listed removing the Middle Fork Nooksack Dam as one of their top recommended actions for recovering Puget Sound Chinook salmon populations. Scientists expect that dam removal will catalyze an increase in Chinook salmon runs in the river by around 30 percent. Importantly, an increase in Chinook can help aid the Southern Resident orca whale populations that hunt in the Puget Sound/Salish Sea seasonally. Chinook salmon are an essential food source for this endangered species – and the lack of sufficient prey numbers is the leading cause of their decline. Just 75 individual whales remain, and this population has altered their traditional migration and feeding patterns in search of more fish along the coast and elsewhere. Scientists are confident that other fish species will benefit as well; with dam removal, steelhead now have access to 45 percent of their ancestral habitat in the river.
“Our natural resources are our cultural resources. With this removal we get a little piece of our home back — a place where our people have visited for hundreds of generations.” - Trevor Delgado, the Nooksack tribal historic preservation officer
Dam removal is also one important step to address issues of justice for indigenous communities. Nooksack and Lummi people identify as Salmon People; their relationship with salmon since time immemorial is at the heart of their culture, economy, and traditions. Increasing fish populations on the Nooksack River is a small step toward upholding our nation’s promise to sustain fish populations for local native peoples. Keeping this promise of maintaining – and restoring – healthy, resilient, life-giving rivers is essential for the well-being, heritage, and identity of the Nooksack Indian Tribe and Lummi Nation. Trevor Delgado, the Nooksack tribal historic preservation officer stated, “Our natural resources are our cultural resources. With this removal we get a little piece of our home back — a place where our people have visited for hundreds of generations.”
Removing dams can create positive economic, community, ecological, and social justice outcomes and has become an increasingly accepted mechanism of river restoration. “It is possible to create a more sustainable future by restoring a free-flowing river to provide critical habitat for threatened species and to meet the needs of communities,” said McEwen. “We hope this example of tremendous collaboration and innovation can inform and inspire other river restoration efforts in the region and nationwide.” The benefits seen on the Middle Fork Nooksack River prompt us to support comprehensive solutions, including dam removal, as an investment in the Pacific Northwest and its indigenous people, its fish and whales, and in justice, clean energy, and a revitalized economy.
“It is possible to create a more sustainable future by restoring a free-flowing river to provide critical habitat for threatened species and to meet the needs of communities. We hope this example of tremendous collaboration and innovation can inform and inspire other river restoration efforts in the region and nationwide.” - April McEwen.
Appreciation for the hard work by many...
The successes on the Middle Fork Nooksack River would not have been possible without the work of groups and individuals including American Rivers, the Nooksack Indian Tribe, the Lummi Nation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the City of Bellingham, Vulcan Inc., the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Resources Legacy Fund/Open Rivers Fund, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Puget Sound Partnership, Washington Recreation Conservation Office, Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund, Long Live the Kings, American Whitewater, Pew Environment, and many others.
Isabella Bledsoe is an intern with SOS while she attends the University of Michigan's School for Environment and Sustainability, pursuing a master's degree in Environmental Justice and Geospatial Data Sciences.
- American Rivers. (2020, June 17). Middle Fork Nooksack River Fish Passage Project Begins. Retrieved February 03, 2021, from https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/middle-fork-nooksack-river-fish-passage-project-begins/
- American Rivers. (n.d.). Reimagining a River: The Middle Fork Nooksack. Retrieved February 03, 2021, from https://www.americanrivers.org/reimagining-a-river-the-middle-fork-nooksack/
- Lohan, T. (2020, July 14). A Dam Comes Down — and Tribes, Cities, Salmon and Orcas Could All Benefit. Retrieved February 03, 2021, from https://therevelator.org/nooksack-dam-removal/
- Native Fish Society. (2016, June 16). Nooksack River. Retrieved February 03, 2021, from https://nativefishsociety.org/watersheds/nooksack
- NOAA Fisheries. (2020, July 16). Dam Removal Brings Hope for Salmon in Washington’s Middle Fork Nooksack River. Retrieved February 03, 2021, from https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/dam-removal-brings-hope-salmon-washingtons-middle-fork-nooksack-river
- Puget Sound Partnership. (2020, June 23). The Middle Fork Nooksack River Fish Passage Project will benefit people, fish, and orcas. Retrieved February 03, 2021, from https://medium.com/puget-sound-partnership/the-middle-fork-nooksack-river-fish-passage-project-will-benefit-people-fish-and-orcas-f94d12fa2d58
- Whatcom Watch Online. (n.d.). Middle Fork Diversion Dam. Retrieved February 03, 2021, from https://whatcomwatch.org/index.php/article/middle-fork-diversion-dam/