Dam Operator Agrees to Protect Threatened Salmon, Steelhead, Bull Trout

Puyallup River watershed
A map of the Puyallup River watershed. Image: Pierce County, Wash. government.

An agreement has been reached between environmentalists and the operators of the Electron hydroelectric project on the Puyallup River to preserve safeguards for threatened Chinook salmon steelhead and bull trout.

The deal was announced in March after a coalition of conservation groups sued over the facility’s illegal killing of the threatened species.

According to the Eugene, Oregon-based Western Environmental Law Center, the agreement keeps the project from operating until and unless operators can address the project’s impacts to federally protected native fish that are threatened with extinction.

The Puyallup Tribe separately sued the dam operator over the same issue, and is said to be 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 riverbed. The State of Washington filed a criminal indictment against the project owner, Thom Fischer, for those actions.

Conservation groups said that they 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 response to the conservation groups raising alarms about a 2020 fish kill, federal Judge John Coughenour in June 2021 ordered the intake to stay shut until the company obtains required permits. The subsequent agreement continues that closure until remediation is implemented, and adds that the company will not perform any unpermitted work in the river.

The Puyallup River watershed has historically supported about 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.