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Fish Barging Program Begins at McNary Dam

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, May 2, 2001

McNARY DAM -- Sometime before sunrise this morning, the tug Amy Brusco dumped its precious cargo below Bonneville Dam, releasing a half-million young salmon and steelhead to the Pacific Ocean.

In the space of five minutes, the tug's two red barges drained 250,000 gallons of water like a bathtub, lightening the load so quickly that the empty hulls appeared to spring out of the water.

The fish scattered at blinding speed, planning to return under their own power -- miraculously, three or four years later -- by the tens of thousands to the Columbia and Snake rivers and the tributaries beyond.

At least that's the scenario Corps of Engineers officials hoped for Tuesday morning as the Brusco docked below McNary Dam near Umatilla to collect its first Columbia River payload of the year.

With the region's rivers shriveled by drought and water temperatures already inching above average, the Corps on Tuesday began its controversial fish barging program 45 days earlier than normal at McNary.

It's essentially an emergency measure designed to spread the death risk for Upper Columbia fish between barges and the rivers. Half of the fish captured at McNary are joining every Snake fish the Corps can catch aboard barges.

"River passage conditions are not going to be beneficial for fish," said Dave Hurson, Corps biologist in charge of the Walla Walla District's barging program. "If we can transport 3 million fish (from McNary), I think we'd really be doing good."

Nowhere in the river system is the human hand more evident than at McNary's $18-million juvenile fish transportation center, a collection of pipes, catwalks and raceways that route salmon around the powerhouse and into barges.

In the Grand Central Station of the salmon world, blue pipes carry fresh water, white ones carry fish and green ones carry waste water. Protruding from the open-air, four-story structure is a boom in which 6-inch salmon slide from their holding tanks to cavities inside barge hulls.

From there, the fish float downstream above their adult relatives, who are steaming upriver to spawn in record numbers this spring.

The Corps spends $3 million a year on its unique transport program, which includes trucking fish from lower Snake River dams starting in late March.

And critics aren't hard to find. "It is ... the main prop in the federal government's salmon restoration stage show," said Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of sport and commercial fishing groups. "As long as the show continues, people can perhaps be distracted from the fact that the behind the curtain salmon are going extinct." Environmental groups who call transport a "boondoggle" and "fiasco" recently mailed to journalists small foam semi-trucks with the words "Truck Fish?" on the side, apparently relying on the incongruity of the scene to catch attention. Among the challenges to transport are unanswered questions about the fitness of barged fish to return and spawn.

"Salmon recovery will only come when the fish have a healthier river system," said Autumn Hanna, of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Twenty-three years of silly schemes like this have cost Americans more than $3 billion while making things worse for salmon."

But this year was exactly what federal agencies had in mind when they expanded the transport program substantially in 1977 -- the only other year on record when water flows were as low as they are predicted to be this year. In 1977, in-river fish survival was "virtually nil," according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"This program started because of low water, and it's done its best with low water," said Nola Conway, Corps spokeswoman, adding that some barging opponents are supporting it this year.

"It's not a 100 percent solution," she said. "But it's an effective program."

Summer flows at McNary Dam may drop to 105,000 cubic feet per second -- less than half of what NMFS calls for in its river operations guide. When flows drop, the river slows down and heats up, making salmon predators more active.

"If you get really low flows, you don't have enough to move (fish) downstream," said Hurson, who expects the Corps to be collecting 50,000 fish every other day at McNary when the migration season hits its peak in a few weeks. "Things are just starting to compound."

Mike Lee
Fish Barging Program Begins at McNary Dam
Tri-City Herald, May 2, 2001

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