The Middle Fork diversion dam in Bellingham, Washington, was 25 feet tall and controlled 16 miles of the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River, which drains the North Cascades watershed into Bellingham Bay, just a few miles south of the west-most end of the U.S.-Canadian border. The dam diverted water into Lake Whatcom by pipe, supplementing the drinking water for the approximately 85,000 inhabitants of Bellingham and western Whatcom County. It was built in 1962, when water management was less regulated and the city regularly ran short, but that hasn’t been a problem now in decades. Unfortunately, the old dam still was—but no longer.

The dam started off on the wrong legal foot. It was built in violation of the 1893 act protecting fish passage, with no accommodations for salmon or other migratory fish. In 2000, the City of Bellingham was approached by a delegation of the Nooksack Indian Tribe and the Lummi Nation, two of the tribes who historically shared this watershed, to begin discussion about restoring fish passage in the Nooksack River.

In 2002, an agreement was signed to work on deconstructing the Middle Fork Dam. The project has been tabled and reopened several times in the years since, but since 2017, steady progress has been made. And at last, beginning the week of July 13, 2020, the removal of the dam itself began at last.

With a series of controlled explosions, the concrete footing and thick wall of the dam was destroyed. Cleanup has begun and is expected to be complete before September 2020. Once removal is complete, the restoration of the 16 miles of the fork above it can begin. Dams cause a massive backwash of silt, which is a lethal environment for egg-laying fish. But with the dam removed, restored water-flow will begin to flush that silt out.

The Middle Fork Dam is the 33rd Washington state dam removed since 1999, opening up another river to prop up the Pacific Northwest’s declining salmon population and all of the ecosystems which rely on these keystone species.

Photo: A salmon swimming upstream. Credit: Shutterstock