Journey Downriverby Anna King, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, August 3, 2003
They were almost there. A warm, steady wind nudged at the docked barge as it waited to enter the Bonneville locks.
Below deck, in an inky holding tank, thousands of salmon, some no larger than an index finger, swam lazily. They were minutes from being released below the dam to continue their journey to the ocean on their own.
On the eve of what's expected to be one of the largest runs of returning salmon in decades, the barge crew is hauling some of the year's last juvenile salmon to sea.
The scene doesn't provide any hints that this journey is embroiled in controversy. It's a fight rooted in the fact this is not a free-flowing river.
After two hot weeks chugging up and down the river, the four crew members were eager to trade places with a new crew. As they put their worn duffle bags on the dock, other bags were loaded aboard.
As the parting captain stepped off, he shared a "It's way too early in the morning for this" glance with the arriving crew.
Minutes later, water gushed out of the locks, like a giant bathtub draining. Massive concrete walls shone wet above as the tug and barge rested more than 50 feet below.
The lock doors, taller than nine-story buildings, opened with an eerie screech and rumble.
"It will take us about 15 or 20 minutes to get there," said Matt Philley, a biological technician for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Since the late 1970s, the Corps has barged millions of juvenile salmon downstream past dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers.
Without barging, the smolt -- the term used to describe baby salmon when they go to salt water -- would have to go through the dam turbines, over spillways or through fish bypass systems.
Those that aren't killed by turbines or the spillways face predators, irregular river levels and warm water. The Corps estimates half of the fish that aren't barged never reach the sea.
Barging, however, increases the survival rate for the smolt released below Bonneville to 98 percent, said Dutch Meier, Corps spokesman.
Environmental groups, however, criticize the barging program, which is a basic part of federal plans for helping juvenile fish.
Save Our Wild Salmon says on its Web site that the plan "has the usual 'techno-fixes' -- They want fish in barges, not rivers, where they belong."
Some tribes and other federal and state agencies want the Corps to spill more water or remove the dams.
However, the interests that depend upon the dam for power production, transportation, irrigation and recreation disagree. They say not all the burden of salmon survival should be placed on the dams.
A recent press release from the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association says the measures environmentalists propose "would provide little or no measurable benefit to listed (fish) runs."
The group also charges that reducing the barging program would set back restoration efforts.
The barging efforts begin in early May, as the spring runoff wanes and water temperatures rise, and continues until mid-August.
Following the fish
This trip began about 40 hours earlier at Lower Granite Dam.
Above the dam, a bypass system diverted the fish through a series of tubes and gates to holding tanks or a laboratory.
In the lab, scientists from various agencies tagged some of the captured fish, measured them and took scale samples. Although they were sedated, the tiny fish flopped about as the scientists gently held them.
From the lab, the fish were sluiced down a plastic tube to join the others in large concrete holding tanks.
On the barge, a technician with "Mother" tattooed on one wrist and "Father" on the other stood waiting in the hot sun. Above, a scientist signaled, and a rush of water and fish was directed into a holding tank on the barge.
The barge has six tanks, each able to hold about 25,000 gallons of water and up to 12,500 pounds of fish. It's near the end of the season, so not all are filled to capacity on this run.
With the fish onboard, the tug "Leif" is cleared to go and a Corps biologist steps on to "baby-sit" the fish on their way downstream.
His job is to monitor the hold's water temperature and oxygen levels so the fish aren't stressed or killed during the two-day ride.
"Something always goes wrong, but nothing like I've had to release the fish early or something," said Philley.
The technician doesn't get much sleep. He must check the fish once every four hours and keep the engines that pump fresh water into the tanks always running.
Metal grates are placed atop the tanks to ensure the salmon can see out and navigate by the stars, he said.
The process of collecting and loading fish was repeated again at Little Goose, Lower Monumental and McNary. The barge was delayed at the locks at the John Day and The Dalles dams, waiting for other traffic to pass.
The John Day pool -- known for its wind and waves -- is loved by wind surfers but feared by boat captains. But crossing the large body of water is easier during this summer trip with good weather and a light load.
"This is kind of a small job for these guys. They are used to pushing four wheat barges down here," Philley said.
After passing six dams and traveling 286 river miles from Lower Granite, the barge arrived at Bonneville Dam, 40 miles east of Portland. It was somewhere around 2 a.m.
After the tired crew disembarked and a new captain took the helm, the tug and barge pulled out into the dark river channel.
It was about a 20-minute trip to where the fish will be released, and some of the toughest water was ahead.
"The ride down is smoother than the ride up," Philley warned. That's because the weight of the fish and water keeps the wind from taking hold of the barge. Once the fish are dumped, it's a different story.
Coming back up, "the push" would be much more difficult. It's a short stretch of water, famous for its strong currents and narrow channel.
Once a barge enters the push, it can't turn around.
"I've sat here for seven hours before, trying to get over it," said Joel Pitman, the boat's pilot.
How far below Bonneville the fish are released is changed often. "They have several places where they release fish, largely to confuse predators," Meier said.
"If you release the fish in the same place every day, the predators hear the dinner bell ring and you have smolt-smorgasbord."
At about 3 a.m., starlight illluminated the release point.
The barge reversed, tracking upstream to avoid running over the precious cargo.
Inside the holding tanks, large plugs shaped like toilet plungers lifted with a hiss. Water and fish surged through 2-foot holes into the river below.
It took less than 40 seconds to empty the tanks.
A glance over the barge's side revealed a few silver flashes, disappearing quickly into the black waves.
This barge carried a small load of fish, but when the hold is full it's amazing to watch, Meier said.
"It's like watching glitter."
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