Electron Dam Operator Signs Agreement to Protect Puyallup River (WA)
A coalition of conservation groups (American Rivers, American Whitewater, and Western Environmental Law Center) has reached an agreement with the operators of the Electron hydroelectric project on the Puyallup River to preserve safeguards for threatened Chinook salmon, steelhead, and bull trout. The groups had sued over the facility’s illegal killing of these imperiled fish. The agreement will keep the project from operating until and unless operators can address the project’s unacceptable impacts to federally protected native fish threatened with extinction.
The Puyallup Tribe separately sued the dam operator over the same issue, and is considering next steps in its lawsuit. The Tribe is also a party to a suit brought by the United States and others challenging Electron’s unlawful placement of artificial turf in the river bed. The state of Washington filed a criminal indictment against the project owner, Thom Fischer, for those actions.
“Settlement allows us to refocus our efforts on a new frontier: the company’s forthcoming habitat conservation plan, which must address all aspects of the project,” says Pete Frost, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “We look forward to working with Electron, the Puyallup Tribe, and public agencies to ensure wild fish recovery in the Puyallup River.”
Conservation groups sued in part because project operators diverted water from the river into a forebay where protected fish were killed by predation and turbidity or in powerhouse turbines. In June 2021, in response to the conservation groups raising alarms about a 2020 fish kill, federal Judge John Coughenour ordered the intake to be kept shut until the company obtains required permits. Today’s agreement continues that closure until remediation is implemented, and adds that the company will not perform any unpermitted work in the river.
“We will continue to work with and support the Puyallup Tribe and our conservation partners to ensure the Electron project does no further harm to the Puyallup River. Safe and effective fish passage at the project site and adequate flows in the Puyallup are needed,” said Wendy McDermott, Northwest Regional Director for American Rivers. “American Rivers named the Puyallup one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers in 2020. It is long past due for Electron to comply with the law and stop killing imperiled native populations of fish. Restoring healthy populations of Chinook salmon is imperative for both the Tribe and critically endangered Southern Resident orcas. ”
“Hydropower provides many benefits for our region, but those benefits are not without impacts to aquatic ecosystems including fish and wildlife, recreation and overall river health,” said Thomas O’Keefe, Pacific Northwest stewardship director for American Whitewater. “Those who own and manage hydropower facilities in the region have a responsibility to lawfully operate their projects in compliance with environmental regulations. We will pursue all avenues to help these threatened fish, while supporting the Puyallup Tribe’s continued efforts.”
Historically, the Puyallup River watershed supported approximately 42,000 Chinook salmon. A 2007 National Marine Fisheries Service recovery plan for salmon estimates a current population of only 1,300 Chinook salmon in the watershed. The Puyallup also historically supported a healthy run of steelhead and bull trout. In 2007, NMFS listed steelhead trout in Puget Sound, including in the Puyallup River, as threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act.
In 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the populations of bull trout in the Coastal/Puget Sound region in Washington, including in the Puyallup River, as threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act. These bull trout populations include an anadromous form (spawning in rivers and streams but rearing young in the ocean) – the only one of its kind in the entire U.S.
The Puyallup River, which flows from Mt. Rainier to Commencement Bay in Puget Sound, is one of eight “core areas” for bull trout in the Puget Sound region, and a local population exists in the upper Puyallup River, where higher elevations produce the cool water temperatures they require. In 2004, USFWS issued a draft recovery plan for Coastal/Puget Sound bull trout, which lists an abundance target for bull trout in the Puyallup River at 1,000 adults. By contrast, as of 2004 the population totals fewer than 100 adults.
By Thomas O’Keefe