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Groups Aim to Create Fish-Friendly Areas

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, August 11, 2000

MILTON-FREEWATER -- At Clark Lampson's blueberry farm, the silver riffles of the Walla Walla River are inviting.

He's upstream of most irrigation diversions and the river gurgles purposefully downstream with enough force to carry Lampson on his inner tube.

On the far side of the river, trees provide shade -- a precious commodity in the blazing summers. Farther upstream, the river forks, its branches reaching 6,000 feet high into the Blue Mountains and the Umatilla National Forest.

But Lampson isn't happy. He's got 2,000 feet of rock levee -- and at least one old car body -- along his stretch of river. The rock was installed by a previous owner several decades ago. And Lampson wants it out.

Because of how the land is shaped above Lampson, his levy provides little flood protection. He'd rather give the river room to breathe -- let it reclaim the flood plain.

At two other sites not far away, the Corps of Engineers is also planning to move back or eliminate old levees, opening up 60 acres where the river once wandered. The agency is waiting for money to complete the work.

"Our desire is basically just to have it look more like a natural river," said Lampson, adding he won't charge the Corps for an easement on his land.

Lampson is essentially giving up the rights to farm about half his land for at least 15 years, preferring instead to have it overtaken by alder, dogwood and willow.

"We're basically saying it's a flood area, it's a fish area," he said.

Bringing back springers

Fish, of course, need more areas in the Walla Walla. And the Walla Walla is getting more fish.

"We don't want to wait for them to recolonize naturally," said Gary James, fisheries manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "We won't be alive."

On Tuesday, a state-tribal coalition released roughly 400 "ripe" spring chinook into the South Fork of the Walla Walla and Mill Creek in an experiment to see how they fare. If all goes well, they will do what untold generations of spring chinook have done elsewhere -- build nests and deposit hundreds of thousands of eggs.

There's a good 30 miles of suitable spawning and rearing habitat in the upper main stem and tributaries, some of which is "excellent," the tribal experiment plan said. And, based on migration timing, chinook are expected to be able to migrate to the lower Walla Walla when there's enough water to let them pass.

The river "has improved enough to begin evaluating spring chinook production," the plan said.

Chinook reintroduction was made possible by unusually high spring returns of fish across the Columbia Basin, which gave officials opportunities to take advantage of the "surplus."

Also, the state is facing major hatchery cutbacks because federal money has been slashed. One of the casualties -- to the dismay of Tri-City anglers -- was the Ringold spring chinook program.

"We don't have any need for that next generation," said Bob Foster, Columbia River policy coordinator for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. So, he said, it makes sense to try "outplanting" them to the Walla Walla on the chance they will fare well.

Fisheries managers nabbed Columbia River spring chinook returning to Ringold earlier this year and hauled them to a tribal holding pen along the South Fork of the Walla Walla.

"They will produce some juveniles, hopefully, but nobody knows," Foster said. "What this is going to do is point out where you might want to make changes ... so the adults can survive."

But the planting program -- even at the pittance of about $20,000 -- wasn't easy to conjure up. E-mails obtained by the Herald show state Fish and Wildlife Department managers feared the project had the potential to incite Mid-Columbia anglers who are losing their Ringold spring chinook fishery.

Unless anglers are given a shot at the fish first, warned one internal memo, "We are going to have a hell of a public relations problem once the anglers start seeing fish trapped and hauled away.

"They will ask questions and undoubtedly 'go ballistic' when they hear that Ringold springers, produced with Mitchell Act dollars primarily for (Washington) sport fishermen, are voluntarily being given away by WDFW to the Umatilla Tribe and are being trucked to Oregon for an 'experiment,' " the e-mail said.

The agency eventually set policy that emphasized sport harvest as the first priority -- but it still drew grumbles from Tri-City anglers who complained that their last springers were being taken from them.

Nonetheless, they recognized that a restored spring chinook fishery in the Walla Walla was a big step -- one that promises more fish for tribal and nontribal groups alike.

Eventually, the Umatillas want to see an expanded hatchery program on the South Fork to help restore the runs by raising a half-million spring chinook each year. One tribal document said the goal was for 5,000 spring chinook to return annually.

Cooperation key to future

Given this year's bold move by irrigation districts to leave water in the Walla Walla, most interest groups in the valley are optimistic fish eventually will be able to cohabitate with humans in the valley.

State Rep. Dave Mastin, R-Walla Walla, said he's been tapped to bring together disparate sides for a long-term agreement. He aims to prevent litigation.

A lawsuit, "from a fish perspective, ... is going to do more harm than good," said Mastin, a natural resource lawyer.

"I think we will achieve a recognition that agriculture is an important part of our community and that there are some changes that we need to make," he said. "We're committed to making a difference, but what we hope is that federal agencies are committed more to improving (habitat) than they are to trying to win lawsuits."

Even the Northwest states -- long at odds over water use on the border -- are working together. The Washington Department of Ecology, for example, is joining its counterpart agency in Oregon on a plan to take infrared photos of the river to locate "thermal barriers" to fish passage.

"It basically gives you a picture and tells you where the hot water is," said Dave Knight, one of the Ecology Department leaders on the Walla Walla.

It's one of the first cooperative projects of its kind in the basin. "We'll have a pretty good idea of what the problem is when the study of temperature is done," Knight said. "And then the problem is how to fix it."

Whatever the solution, he said, it won't happen if the people of the Walla Walla don't buy it.

That's where the tribes come in. They work both sides of the state line.

And they have the example of the Umatilla River basin in Oregon, where by all accounts tribes and irrigators overcame traditional barriers and resuscitated fish runs while maintaining irrigation. It was a lengthy and complex process, but it worked better than plans in many of the Northwest's water-short basins.

"We're not going away, and they are not going away. We need to both be happy in the long term," said James, the tribal fisheries manager. "We don't want to restore fish in lieu of people's livelihoods."

If nothing else, said James, the tribes and irrigators need each other to bring money to help fix the problems. "We've got to have unified support," he said.

Naomi Stacy, policy analyst and tribal member with the Umatillas in Pendleton, said the tribal perspective comes from their own history -- having their salmon economy decimated.

"Tribes have been there, too," she said of the irrigators' position. "We understand what they are faced with losing, and we certainly wouldn't want to suffer that way."

Still a long way to go

Whatever is worked out for the Walla Walla will have to include more than the three main irrigation districts. "There's a lot of other.... irrigators and users of water -- like every citizen in the city of Walla Walla -- who are also joining this dance," Mastin said.

Perhaps the biggest question now is how the imposition of federal restrictions on harming steelhead will alter the spirit of compromise that's being nurtured in the basin. Rules by the National Marine Fisheries Service are supposed to take effect in September, potentially creating a hostile atmosphere.

"We are mostly waiting to see what their approach is," Stacy said. "In the past, when the federal government has said this is what we want, you get this reactive position of, 'Hell no! We are not going to let the federal government tell us what to do.' "

Mike Bireley, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife inspector in Walla Walla, said the state is trying to work with water users to get their diversion points screened so fish don't get into canals and pipes.

NMFS is about to give big teeth to often-ignored 30-year-old state rules about fish screens.

"It's no longer something they can afford to overlook," Bireley said. But, he added, irrigators who were making progress probably won't be smashed by NMFS.

Bireley's outreach program prompted 25 large water users to volunteer in June to work with the state on new screens. "But that doesn't scratch the surface of the basin," he said.

So the Walla Walla waits -- waits for water, money, rain and more rules handed down from above.

"I'm optimistic, I really am," said Rob Caldwell, an environmental lawyer pushing for river upgrades. "I didn't expect to see the amount of water going back to the river this year that I am."

Mike Lee
Groups Aim to Create Fish-Friendly Areas
Tri-City Herald, August 11, 2000

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