Chehalis Basin

The Chehalis River flows past farmland in southwest Washington. Two state agencies and two tribes have proposed converting land along the river into salmon habitat.

Some 15,000 acres in southwest Washington, much of it farm and forest land, would be converted into salmon habitat at a cost of up to $1.1 billion under a plan presented Monday by two state agencies and two tribes.

Flooding land would help repair damage in the Chehalis River basin that began in the 1850s as settlers farmed, logged, mined and built roads, according to a report co-authored by Ecology, Fish and Wildlife, the Quinault Indian Nation and Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation.

Climate change, population growth and the conversion of land into “high-value fruit crops” are identified as further threats that could make spring chinook salmon — important to orcas — extinct by the end of the century.

“This bleak outlook demands urgent attention, but it also presents historic opportunity,” the report states.

The Chehalis River basin, 2,700-square miles primarily in Lewis and Grays Harbor counties, has some of Western Washington’s most productive farmland. Almost half the land along the main stem of the Chehalis River is agricultural.

Lewis County farmer Dave Fenn said the region’s farmers are nervously watching the push to convert agriculture land into fish habitat.

“The most productive acres are along the river,” he said. “When you start taking too much land out of production, it has consequences for the people who live here.

“Things agriculture can do to help fish and that don’t destroy agriculture, I’m sure a majority of farmers are interested in, but it has to work for all involved,” Fenn said.

Salmon in the basin are not endangered, but the state agencies and tribes say aggressive steps are needed to keep it that way.

The plan envisions a three-phase approach to increasing habitat, at a cost of between $550 million and $1.1 billion. Much of the money would be spent on buying land or easements from willing property owners.

If carried out, the plan would be expected to increase the basin’s capacity to produce spring chinook salmon and other fish.

By 2080, the basin could be producing approximately 2,100 spring chinook a year, compared to the current 1,700, according to a chart in the report.

If nothing is done, fish “face a grave future,” according to the report, as climate change and human activity degrade the environment.

Potential spring chinook production could be expected to drop to 500 a year by 2080, according to the chart. More exact numbers were not available Monday.

“The Chehalis basin is one of the state’s only major river systems with no salmon species listed as threatened or endangered,” Emelie McKain, the basin’s aquatic restoration manager for Fish and Wildlife, said in a written statement. “We want to keep it that way by restoring and protecting their habitat.”

The basin has a history of flooding. Dairy farmers in the basin lost hundreds of cows to rising water in 2007. Ecology is studying the environmental effects of building a flood-control dam on the Chehalis River.

A preliminary report should be out early next year, a department spokesman said Monday.

The Legislature created the Office of the Chehalis Basin to study how to control floods and produce more salmon. The plan out Monday addresses just fish. A plan on controlling floods is due out next year.

The fish plan warns climate change will heat streams and increase flooding.

{div class=”page” title=”Page 231”}{div class=”layoutArea”}{div class=”column”}”Development is also anticipated to continue in the basin, including the possible transition of many agricultural lands to more intensive agriculture such as high-value fruit crops or residential land uses,” the plan states.

”Development will place further pressure on surface and groundwater supplies and could also cause increased runoff of water and pollutants from impervious surfaces,” the plan cautions.

The region has seen new blueberry plantings. Farmers also are experimenting with growing grains to supply brewers and bakers.

The fish-restoration plan is being circulated for public comment. Comments are due Jan. 14. More information is online at chehalisbasinstrategy.com.

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