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The Impact – Water Rights and the Skookumchuck Dam Debate

Mike McClanahan profile by Mike McClanahan

It takes a lot of water to produce electricity with steam. What happens to all the water when the power plant shuts down? That question is at the heart of a debate over the future of the Skookumchuck Dam at TransAlta’s coal-fired power plant in Centralia. 

The facility’s dam on the Skookumchuck River was constructed to provide water for steam plant operations, but it also contains a small hydroelectric turbine which produces some electricity. 

The  plant is down to running just one coal fired boiler today and is scheduled to shut down completely in 2025. Now there’s a dispute over what happens with the dam and the company’s water rights when the lights go out at TransAlta’s Big Hanaford plant.

The Skookumchuck feeds into the Chehalis River which is the focus of a large-scale effort to reduce catastrophic flooding and improve aquatic habitat for struggling steelhead and salmon populations. 

The Office of the Chehalis Basin conducted a study that looked at different outcomes for  the Skookumchuck dam,its impact on migratory fish, and the structure’s potential to mitigate flooding.

While it wasn’t built as a flood control dam, it has reduced flood levels in the nearby communities of Bucoda and Centralia in previous emergencies when conditions were right.

But the study concluded providing reliable flood control would require multi-million dollar upgrades.

The study also found that the dam poses a serious problem for spawning fish and that fixing its insufficient fish passage features  would require tens of millions of dollars in upgrades. While dam removal would benefit fish, the study found it would eliminate any flood protection benefits and also impact the water rights currently held by TransAlta. 

The company has no plans to abandon the dam. According to the Department of Ecology which handles water rights agreements, TransAlta’s water right was issued to its predecessor in the  1960’s and a 2009  certificate allocates 28,000 acre feet of water to the company. That much water could cover 14,000 football fields in  two feet of water.

In 2020 TransAlta applied to repurpose its water right after the plant shuts down and create a new water bank.  In 2021 the State Department of Ecology recommended approval of the water bank. At least two nearby cities already have preliminary deals to use that water, but other stakeholders are outraged by the move. 

On June 13the the Quinault Indian Nation and the environmental law firm Earthjustice petitioned WDFW Director Kelly Susewind to demand that the Skookumchuck Dam be removed. They argue it poses an insurmountable obstacle for struggling fish runs on the river, especially Spring-run Chinook.

TransAlta declined an interview, but sent the following statement:

“TransAlta recognizes the role the Skookumchuck Dam plays in current and future regional economic and environmental interests and has been actively engaged in State discussions related to the future of the Dam. We look forward to working with all stakeholders to finding a solution that strikes the appropriate balance between these interests.”

Mickey Dreher, VP Centralia

We also reached out to the agencies involved, the petitioners, and other stakeholders like the City of Centralia which has long-term plans for the impacted water.   

Watch the episode to hear from Earthjustice Senior Attorney Janette Brimmer representing the Quinault Indian Nation as well as Centralia Public Works Director Kim Ashmore about the city’s interest in the water dating back to the 1950’s and the importance of the water bank to the future of two communities.