From atop the new and nondescript concrete highway bridge crossing State Route 508, the Newaukum River looks more like a stream: bigger than a creek, but smaller than a true river. It cuts through the flat plain of Lewis County east of Interstate 5 and Onalaska.
“This is a million-dollar bridge,” said Kirsten Harma, watershed coordinator of the Chehalis Basin Lead Entity — a coalition of tribal, local and state government agencies, as well as citizens focused on salmon recovery in this area.
This bridge is one small piece of a decades-long, multimillion-dollar effort to restore shrinking Chinook salmon and steelhead runs to the Chehalis River Basin. With the old bridge and culverts removed, the shoreline could return in time to a state that fosters healthy salmon runs.
But lawmakers will have to balance salmon needs with human ones. South of the hamlet of Pe Ell, a proposed flood control dam upstream on the Newaukum could provide relief from floods that sometimes stretch all the way to close I-5. But some worry the upstream dam could inhibit all those restoration efforts. This year, several state and local agencies and entities in the basin will decide how to tackle the first phase of rebuilding the area’s salmon population, and funding the flood control dam will be at the center of the debate.