Now they’ve done it

The year 2020 has thrown a lot at us.  We started out with mudslides, shifted into a pandemic and we’re still recovering from last week’s wildfires. You may be asking, what could possibly happen, next?

Well, sadly, this seemingly doomed calendar year also brought us an environmental mess of disastrous proportions.

If you have lived in Pierce County for very long you are very familiar with the name “Puyallup.”  Most of you will know it originates with the tribe of Indians who have always inhabited much of Pierce County. And, they are a key partner with us today.

The Puyallup Tribe of Indians works closely with us on environmental stewardship, transportation, economic development, human services and much more. Many of you, like me, may call the city of Puyallup your hometown, or your children may attend one of the 31 schools in the Puyallup School District.  Surprisingly, at last Monday’s new employee orientation, most of our newest colleagues had some connection to Puyallup – either distant or current.

I hope you connect the name Puyallup with the most important river in Pierce County.  This river originates in the glaciers on Mount Rainier and travels 45 miles to Commencement Bay.  Its tributaries include the Carbon, White and Green rivers.  The Puyallup’s watershed is 948 square miles – half the size of our entire County (note: we share some of the watershed with King Co.). This river connects us – it ties our foothills and rural communities to our suburban and urban neighbors.

Many of you may also have heard of an old wooden dam in the Puyallup Valley called the Electron Dam. Built in 1904 when our communities desperately needed power and did not fully understand the impact on our fish and environment, this 12-foot wooden structure still sits on the Puyallup River.  Puget Sound Energy sold it about 10 years ago to a private company, Electron Hydro, LLC.

I’ve spoken to many long-time residents who toured the dam during field trips when they were kids. Another frequent field trip for local elementary students is the Puyallup Fish Hatchery – one of several hatcheries on the Puyallup River and its tributaries.

I have heard many stories about the management of the dam under Electron Hydro. However, even I would not have believed that someone would be irresponsible enough to place over 2,000 square yards of old FieldTurf  – in violation of their own approved plan, our permit, and common sense – including the small crumb rubber particles (made from recycled tires) on the riverbed as part of a construction project.

Tragically, but not surprisingly, an estimated 600 square yards of turf broke loose, depositing 4-6 cubic yards of the crumb rubber pellets along 40 miles of the Puyallup River and likely into Commencement Bay.  The company publicly stated it is committed to cleaning up the mess but I’m afraid that project will be a bit like putting toothpaste back in the tube – it simply can’t be adequately done.  Picture 600 yards of turf and pellets strewn throughout the river and I’m sure you can appreciate my outrage on behalf of our residents – both to the owner and in the media.

Some of you may ask, we have other contractors who violate permits, what makes this so different that it merits my strong personal response?  I can think of no other action that is as irresponsible, that affects our dynamic and fragile river environment so dramatically, at such a crucial time when the fish are returning to spawn.

The Puyallup River is home to the only spring Chinook salmon run in our region.  Not only do the fish runs support the life and livelihood of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, but the salmon are known to be the favorite meal of the endangered Southern Resident Orca whale population.

I’m grateful that Dave Risvold and our Planning and Public Works leadership took swift action when they learned of the contractor’s violation.  A stop order has been in effect since August 5th and we’ve laid out very specific mitigation steps the owner must take.

My ultimate goal is to remove the dam and restore the river to its original run. And I’m pleased that we have many partners willing to work alongside us to make that happen, including the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.

For now, it is our expectation that the dam will be “buttoned up” for the winter while we work to lay out a process that will result in the removal of the dam. This is one of the interesting situations where part of our team must fairly administer the regulations while others are pursuing a legal strategy to remove the “grandfathered” dam.

Before I close out this blog, I want to take a moment to recognize and thank a very special person – Chief Jim Heishman of the Sheriff’s Department.  As some of you may know, Jim is retiring after 32 years with the Department.

Jim began his career as a patrol deputy and over the years worked his way up to Chief. Along the way, he has received many awards and commendations for his outstanding service and his commitment to the core values of the Sheriff’s Department.

In honor of his pending retirement and with gratitude for his three decades of public service, I have issued a proclamation and have declared September 20, 2020 as Chief Jim Heishman Day. I hope you plan to celebrate accordingly!

Thanks for reading,