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Drought, Power Needs Deadly for Young Fish

by Staff and Wire reports
Spokesman Review, October 21, 2001

PORTLAND -- As expected, the region-wide drought made this year's migration through the Columbia River Basin deadly for young salmon and steelhead.

Survival rates were among the lowest ever recorded, preliminary statistics show, boding ill for future fish returns.

Only one spring and summer have seen river flows lower since record keeping began in 1929. That slowed the river and raised the water temperature, which can kill young fish.

But federal biologists said they could not determine whether fish were hurt more by the drought or by ramped-up power generation.

The federal salmon recovery plan normally requires the diversion of billions of gallons of water each spring and summer from power turbines to spillways, giving young salmon a safer way past the dams. But after power prices soared this year, the Bonneville Power Administration warned of bankruptcy if it was forced to forgo so much generation. As a result, it spilled only a tenth of the water called for in the recovery plan.

"It was even worse than we feared," said Bob Heinith, hydrosystem coordinator for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "There was no water released for fish, and when there was spill, it was too little, too late."

The impact of the survival when those fish return as adults to spawn in two to four years is unknown. More than half the migrating fish were trucked or barged around federal dams.

State and federal biologists track the survival of young salmon with tiny microchips implanted in about 1 million young fish each year.

The Fish Passage Center reported that 30 percent of the spring and summer chinook that remained in the river survived the migration from Lower Granite Dam in eastern Washington to Bonneville Dam. That compares with an average survival rate of 43 percent for the previous six years.

Less than 5 percent of the steelhead remaining in the river made it from Lower Granite to Bonneville Dam, compared with an average of 46 percent the previous six years.

Despite more than $3 billion spent on restoring dwindling runs, scientists generally agree that this year's run is a happy accident of weather that won't last for long.

Another good return is expected next year, but this year's drought and California energy crisis left little water in the Columbia for fish, and downstream migration survivals were the lowest on record.

"The abundance and joy you saw on the river has little likelihood of repeating itself in 2003 and 2004," when those fish are due to come back, said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

While habitat is being restored, it is not expected to bear fruit for 20 to 30 years, said Mike Matylewich, a commission biologist.

A stretch of good rainy winters the past five years made for unusually good survival for the young fish making their spring migration to the ocean, said Steve Williams, assistant director of the fish division for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

When they got to the ocean, a rare combination of winds, temperatures and currents jump-started the food chain, welling up nutrients from the ocean floor so that tiny plants called phytoplankton could thrive. This made for lots of food for tiny animals, called zooplankton, and in turn small fish, and finally, the salmon, Williams said.

Next year is projected to be another good return, but no one is proclaiming salmon victory.

Staff and Wire reports
Drought, Power Needs Deadly for Young Fish
Spokesman Review, October 21, 2001

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