MF Nooksack River Dam Removal Planning: A Smart Infrastructure and Fish Passage Project

Year: 2020
Presenter/s: April McEwen
Symposium Session: 2020 - 11 Dam removal in the Pacific Northwest
Topics covered: beavers, fish passage, hydraulics, instream structure (culvert/bridge/dam), risk and resilience, and sediment transport


The Middle Fork Nooksack River Fish Passage Project, near Bellingham, WA, will reestablish access to approximately 16 miles of critical spawning and rearing habitat for Puget Sound ESA-listed Chinook salmon, Steelhead, and Bull Trout in 2020 while maintaining the City of Bellingham’s supplemental water supply. Project elements include: (1) removal of the City of Bellingham’s diversion dam and channel restoration to restore fish passage; (2) relocating/constructing the water intake upstream to maintain municipal water supply; and (3) installing an off-channel fish screen for fish protection and reduced environmental impact footprint. The project design uses innovative engineering and modern technology to meet the purpose of the dam in providing the City of Bellingham’s supplemental water supply, without need for the dam. A geomorphic-based design approach based in thorough site assessment targets native fish species passage, and best addresses risk and inherent uncertainty associated with the Nooksack River system’s physical drivers and channel conditions in meeting the project goals and objectives.
The $17 million project was re-initiated in 2017, with the entire planning phase (i.e., feasibility evaluation, alternatives analysis, design, permitting, and fundraising) completed in 1.5 years. This included final design plans for the following project elements: dam removal, restoration of ~200ft of river channel, construction of a gravity-fed water intake ~600ft upstream, extension of the existing water diversion pipeline through the historical dam construction spoils, and an automated off-channel fish screen and bypass facility. Thirteen federal, state, and local permits were secured, including an extended in-water work period for completion in one season. American Rivers secured significant seed funding from private foundations for project management, design, and construction ($4.1 million), which allowed the remaining $13.5 million to be leveraged from local, state, and federal sources. The project is currently in construction, and in-water work will begin in June 2020 with completion in October 2020. This project demonstrates best practices in efficient project planning and management, with the following primary conclusions and implications. Water resource needs can be met with less environmental impact for longer-term sustainability through use of smart modern infrastructure. A complex multi-benefit project can be planned and funded in record time through development of a strategic yet agile Project Management framework, application of efficient project management processes, and public-private funding partnerships.