Middle Fork Nooksack River Fish Passage Project

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 12/16/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20939

The Middle Fork Nooksack River Fish Passage Project is the result of 20 years of studies and planning by the City of Bellingham and tribal, state, and private partners to bring fish back to the upper reaches of the Middle Fork Nooksack River in Whatcom County, and to restore the river more closely to its natural state. The river long served as a home for salmon and trout as well as a spiritual inspiration for the Nooksack Indian Tribe, but the construction of the Middle Fork Nooksack River Diversion Dam impacted this, blocking the fish from reaching the river's upper stretches and altering its flow for more than half a century.  Beginning in the late 1990s numerous studies were conducted and various proposals were made to come up with the right solution, and a plan was finally agreed upon in 2019.

The River and the Valley

The Nooksack River flows roughly 75 miles through northwestern Washington from the Cascade Mountains near Mount Baker to Bellingham Bay. Its watershed spans 830 square miles and contains more than 1,000 miles of streams and rivers which extend south into Skagit County and north across the Canadian border into southern British Columbia. The Middle Fork Nooksack River is one of three major forks of the Nooksack River, and forms on the southern slope of Mount Baker at Deming Glacier. Fed by connecting creeks carrying runoff from the mountain, the river flows northwest through the Middle Fork Nooksack River Valley before joining the North Fork Nooksack River near the community of Welcome, located a few miles east of Deming on Washington State Route (SR) 542. The South Fork Nooksack River joins the other two rivers about three miles southwest of this spot, south of Deming near SR 9. From there, the Nooksack River flows about 40 miles northwest through Everson and Lynden before turning southwest, then south, passing through Ferndale and emptying into Bellingham Bay on the eastern edge of the Lummi Reservation near Marietta. 

The Middle Fork Nooksack River Valley was formed by several different processes, glaciation and volcanic eruptions being the two principal ones among them. Located in the Puget Lowland, the valley has been shaped throughout its history by several periods when it was covered by glaciers more than a mile thick. The ebb and flow of the glaciers altered the land beneath them, while rivers of running water beneath the glaciers carved dramatic channels which later became the deep lakes and steep mountain valleys of the Middle Fork Valley that we now know. Depending on which source you read, the giant ice sheets of the last ice age retreated from the valley a relatively recent 10,000 to 15,000 years ago with the final retreat of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet. In addition, Mount Baker has erupted at least four times in the last 10,000 years, and the resulting mudflows, landslides, and two lava flows off of the mountain have also shaped the Middle Fork Valley in their own way.

The Nooksack Indian Tribe

The Nooksack tribe inhabited these lands in the centuries before the nineteenth century. The name Nooksack comes from the Nooksack word Nuxwsa'7aq, and translates into English as "always bracken fern roots." The tribe is among the many Northwest tribes that are more broadly defined as Coast Salish, inhabitants of the coastal regions of the Salish Sea, a region which includes the southwestern part of British Columbia and the northwestern part of Washington. But the Nooksack tribe had its own distinct characteristics that it did not share with other tribes, such as its own language. The tribe seems to have flourished until it was exposed to smallpox and other epidemics as the first non-Native fur trappers began passing through the Northwest in the late eighteenth century. Later estimates claim that the Nooksack population dropped by more than half between 1774 and 1857. Other area tribes were similarly affected.

In the early nineteenth century, the tribe lived in at least 13 winter villages in what later became Whatcom County. This included villages on (or near) the Nooksack River and its tributaries as well as the Sumas River and Lake Whatcom. Its territory covered a distinct region which stretched from just south of modern-day Bellingham north almost to the Fraser River in southern British Columbia before curving east back into the U.S. near Sumas and snaking east near the international boundary before dropping south at the Cascade Mountains and following the crest of the range south past Mount Baker before curving west back to Bellingham Bay. The boundaries themselves were fluid. Other tribes used some of the areas along the boundaries which were claimed by the Nooksack, which was common among Northwest tribes during these years. However, while the Nooksack might have shared the margins of its territory, the Nooksack River and its watershed were controlled solely by the tribe from its origins until its final approach to Bellingham Bay, where it entered territory controlled by the Lummi tribe.

The Middle Fork Nooksack Valley was, and is, especially important to the Nooksack Indian Tribe. The valley is located just southwest of Mount Baker between Mount Baker and Twin Sisters mountains, and it was one of the tribe's favored routes up the mountain. The Coleman party also followed the valley in 1868 when they became the first climbers in recorded history to reach Mount Baker's summit. The Nooksack used the valley for hunting and gathering food and plants, but it had an especially strong spiritual connection for tribal members, and they did not share the valley with other tribes. The Nooksack believe that the valley's secluded spaces and the proximity of the mountains makes it easier for them to seek spiritual guidance and gives them stronger spiritual powers, while the mountains themselves are a hallmark in many Nooksack legends. Because development has not encroached into the valley as it has in other parts of Whatcom County, the valley today remains the focus of many tribal religious activities -- with one exception. Anthropologist Allan Richardson, who has studied the Nooksack Indian Tribe since the 1970s, has observed that the Middle Fork Nooksack Diversion Dam, in operation on the Middle Fork Nooksack River since 1962, has adversely affected the spiritual power and purity of the water in the eyes of the Nooksack, and has negatively impacted the river's use for religious ceremonies downstream by tribal members.

Life changed for the Nooksack when non-Natives began moving to the Northwest in larger numbers during the 1850s. The 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott granted the United States much of the land in exchange for allowing the Native tribes which were party to the treaty to relocate to small area reservations and to maintain limited hunting and fishing rights. But while the Nooksack were a party to the treaty, the tribe was not granted a reservation. They were instead expected to move west to the Lummi Reservation, but not many did. An effort by local settlers to move them to the reservation in 1873 and 1874 ended in failure, and the Nooksack built homes on small parcels of land which they were able to acquire and moved on with their lives. During the 1950s and 1960s the tribe began more aggressively pursuing its rights, and it was finally granted full federal recognition in 1973. In 2019 there were approximately 2,000 Nooksack members living on and near the Nooksack Reservation, which consisted of approximately 2,500 acres centered in the community of Deming as well as additional off-reservation trust land along the Nooksack River about six or seven miles northwest of Deming.

Bellingham and its Water

The community of Whatcom was established in 1852 on Bellingham Bay 15 miles southwest of Deming, and other local communities soon followed -- Bellingham, Sehome, and later, Fairhaven. Eventually, these growing communities began to need more water. The Bellingham Bay Water Company was formed in 1883 to help meet this need, and later in the 1880s the company built an intake on Whatcom Creek between the upper falls and Lake Whatcom's outlet to divert water to Whatcom and Sehome. In 1891 Whatcom and Sehome merged and became New Whatcom, and the new municipality subsequently bought the company. More name changes and consolidations among the communities followed, and after December 28, 1903, one city remained: Bellingham.

Bellingham, and some parts of nearby Whatcom County, quickly became more dependent on Lake Whatcom for its water, and by 1906 swimming in the lake had been banned in an effort to prevent pollution. (The ban was enforced until the 1930s, when increasing residential development along the lake made enforcement impractical.) A dam was built in 1911 at Lake Whatcom's outlet at Whatcom Creek on the northwestern corner of the lake, and in 1938 the City of Bellingham completed another dam at the same location in order to provide more water storage and to help control flooding. This sufficed for a time, but by the 1950s there was a growing concern about maintaining an adequate water supply for the city in future years. This led to the construction of a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River, aptly named the Middle Fork Nooksack River Diversion Dam (also referred to as the Middle Fork Diversion Dam), to channel water to Lake Whatcom.

The Middle Fork Nooksack River Diversion Dam

Until shortly after 1950, the Middle Fork Nooksack Valley was little changed from when non-Native settlement had begun edging into the area a century earlier. Then the U. S. Forest Service built a road (Forest Service Road [FR] 38) to the head of the valley, and though not built for this purpose, the road became the route in and out of the valley in the 1950s, when the city decided to build the dam approximately seven miles southeast of Deming.

Construction of the reinforced-concrete dam and its accompanying tunnel and pipeline began in the late 1950s and was completed in 1961, though the project did not become operational until 1962. The dam was an ogee crest (also referred to as an ogee spillway) dam, a common design type in concrete dams that allows water to flow over the top of the dam. The total cost of construction was just shy of $3.8 million, the equivalent of more than $32 million in 2019 dollars. Built near the upper end of a steep and narrow rocky gorge, the 150-foot-wide dam tapered from a height of 25 feet at the deepest portion of the river channel to about 8 feet at the dam's northern abutment.

At the southern abutment to the dam, a sluiceway was built with two large intake chambers which were screened with bar racks to prevent debris from entering. The intake chambers directed part of the river water into a diversion channel which ran parallel to the river. This channel flushed out sand and silt in the water and directed water to a horseshoe-shaped, concrete-encased tunnel. The tunnel, measuring nearly 8 feet in diameter, ran for more than one-and-a-half miles through Bowman Mountain, where the tunnel transitioned to a smaller pipeline, carrying water a further nine-and-a-half miles into Mirror Lake. From Mirror Lake water flowed into Anderson Creek and then into the southern end of Lake Whatcom. The total distance traveled from the Middle Fork Nooksack River to Lake Whatcom was slightly less than 14 miles. Water that was not diverted into the tunnel flowed back into the river via either a small outlet located at the bottom of the diversion channel on the other side of the tunnel entrance, or over the river-facing wall of the diversion channel itself, which was built to serve as an overflow spillway when the water was high.

Two regulating gates at the entrance to the tunnel from the diversion channel controlled the flow of water into the tunnel. These gates could be adjusted to allow the water flow to remain stable, even during periods when there was flash flooding and the dam was not being monitored. Maintaining a controlled water flow is essential for proper operations and to maintaining the level of Lake Whatcom.

As time passed, and with rising public concerns over declining salmon populations, people gradually became aware of fish passage issues at the dam site. When it had been built there was not a requirement to provide fish passage for the fish that had historically populated the Middle Fork Nooksack River, and the dam prevented them from continuing upstream to spawn. Below the dam the Middle Fork Nooksack River is home to at least four, and perhaps all five, species of Pacific salmon: chinook (king), coho (silver), chum, and pink. Sockeye salmon were recorded in Nooksack River earlier in the twentieth century, though recent studies failed to locate any. Steelhead and bull trout have also been documented in the river. At least some of these species were documented above the dam before 1962, but none have been documented since. Though there has been some suggestion that hardier fish can get over the dam in certain conditions, there has been little evidence presented to support this contention. Approximately 16 miles of fish habitat above the dam were sealed off when the dam was built, and by the end of the twentieth century there was a growing clamor to do something about it.

Studies and More Studies

In 2000, the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe approached the City of Bellingham with an offer to work together to restore fish passage at the dam. Two years later the two tribes signed a memorandum of agreement with the city and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to investigate solutions, and by then studies were already underway by Northwest Hydraulic Consultants. These early studies presumed that the dam would be rehabilitated but remain in place, and there was a further presumption that a fish ladder would be built to allow migrating fish access upstream. Some plans included building a fish ladder on the dam structure itself, while other plans placed the ladder along the southern riverbank. It also was necessary to plan a way to prevent juvenile fish that would eventually be born upstream from being sucked into the diversion channel and inadvertently shipped to Lake Whatcom. This would have been accomplished with a fish exclusion screen installed in the diversion channel. However, it soon became apparent that maintenance costs would be prohibitive, and fish passage would remain impeded by the dam.

In 2004, Northwest Hydraulic Consultants shifted its focus to studies which included demolishing all or most of the dam and building a single, or perhaps multiple, intake structures to be located upstream. Extensive studies and testing of these options followed for the next several years, but there were problems here too. First, the National Marines Fisheries Service (NMFS) had recently promulgated new guidelines for fish exclusion screening systems that favored screens at the point of diversion from the main river channel in order to keep the fish in the river itself. These guidelines created a problem for this particular project, as studies showed that a screen placed at the diversion point would quickly be damaged by rocks and other debris which routinely tumbled down the river. Second, access to the site would be difficult and construction would also be difficult, which caused the estimated cost for this alternative to skyrocket. After nearly a decade of work, it was back to the beginning. 

As the 2010s began, the engineering and consulting firm of Black and Veatch was hired to evaluate other alternatives for the project. In 2011 the firm evaluated one such alternative, which involved installing a large screened siphon intake in the scour pool located at the base of the dam to draw water into the tunnel. Under this alternative most of the dam would have been removed, and the tunnel would have been lined to create a vacuum which would have enabled the siphon to function. But this was quickly determined to be even more expensive than the other alternatives previously considered, and its success was not assured. The idea was soon abandoned. Black and Veatch spent the next several years evaluating the conditions of the dam, tunnel, and pipeline, and while these studies did not make any more design recommendations, they did identify several feasible alternatives which would later prove useful.

One of the biggest problems was the requirement that fish screens be placed at the point of diversion from the main channel. As noted above this would have been difficult to maintain, and it would have required the construction of a larger, more intrusive, diversion structure for the project. This in turn would have affected the river's flow, when the whole point of the project was to restore the river to as close to its natural state as possible. But the NMFS solved this problem in 2011 when it announced new criteria for fish exclusion screening systems which allowed fish screens to be placed outside of the main river channel. This meant a smaller diversion structure could be built for the Middle Fork Nooksack River Fish Passage Project, as well as a simpler fish screen. Not only would this be easier to maintain, it would be less expensive.

Finally, a Solution 

Further progress languished until 2017, when American Rivers, a national nonprofit organization that networks to advocate for effective policies to protect and restore rivers in the United States, joined the partnership after being contacted by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. Funding and in-kind resources from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the City of Bellingham, American Rivers, the Resources Legacy Fund through their Open Rivers Fund, the Washington State Salmon Recovery Funding Board PSAE Large Capital Program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization Restoration Center, helped the city forge ahead with the project. The city retained HDR, another engineering and consulting firm, to review the studies which had already been performed and to identify any alternatives which had not previously been considered. The subsequent HDR report proved useful in helping to create the final design for the project, which was approved in early 2019.

The design called for a new intake system to be installed approximately 700 feet above the existing dam on the southern end of the riverbank. A new water supply pipeline will connect to the already extant diversion channel, with a fish screen to be placed several hundred feet inside the new pipeline. A smaller fish bypass pipeline will be installed near the screen which will enable fish to return directly to the river channel. About 80 feet of the dam will be removed from the southern end of the river channel, which was more directly affected by the dam's construction. (In the channel's northern end, large boulders and a rocky outcrop in the water immediately below the dam would continue to affect the river's flow there, even if the entire dam were removed.) The project further calls for extensive channel restoration in the river for about 500 feet above the dam. The cost is expected to be $20 million, with nearly $10 million coming from public and private funding as well as $10.5 million which was appropriated by the state legislature in 2019. Construction is scheduled to start in early 2020, and fish passage at the site is expected to begin occurring later that year. The project is scheduled to be completed in early 2021.

The project is expected to restore up to 16 miles of habitat for chinook salmon, steelhead, and bull trout. The resulting increase in the fish population in the river (the salmon population alone is projected to increase 31 percent) will also benefit southern resident killer whales (or orcas) in the Salish Sea, who feed on the salmon that enter the sea from the rivers. Equally as significant, the river's restoration will restore its spiritual power and beauty in the eyes of the Nooksack Indian Tribe, which was using the river long before the first non-Natives ever laid eyes on it.


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