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Salmon, Interrupted

by Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
The Spokesman Review, May 13, 2001

Debate rages about effects of barging fish around dams

Emerging from deep inside Lower Granite Dam, a worker in greasy coveralls begins lecturing folks in the visitors center. Don't let environmentalists fool you, he says. Fish are the No. 1 priority of the U.S. Army corps of Engineers.

Consider agency efforts to help young salmon and steelhead make the trip from mountain streams to the ocean. The smolts are collected at Lower Granite and four other dams. They're loaded into barges for a two-day trip down the Snake River to the lower Columbia, shortening the distance they must swim by as much as 300 miles.

"Those fish are getting a free ride," says the worker, who introduces himself as Gus. "It's an easy trip."

Gus represents one side in the debate over Operation Fish Run. The other side describes the barging program as a "silly scheme" and "boondoggle."

The $3 million annual effort is still unproven, 33 years after the first salmon was loaded into a barge. Scientists, politicians and activists argue over whether barging works; studies are inconclusive.

The issue is especially contentious in this year of drought. The government has decided to barge as many fish as possible so it can use as much water as possible for producing power, rather than whisking young fish downstream.

Although the fish run is far from over, there are early indications that this year's crop is failing, with as few as 10 percent of the expected fish showing up at some locations. A substantial loss would ripple through generations, and move protected runs of fish closer to extinction.

Federal agencies say power production must be the first priority, to avoid blackouts and economic crises. And since low water will likely leave the Snake and Columbia inhospitable, they contend barging is the best way to save as many fish as possible.

Indian tribes, environmentalists and fishing groups say barging is a failed experiment.

They want more water dedicated to fish, and less reserved for power production, irrigation and commercial uses. Some groups are suing to press the issue.

Biologists just wish they had more options.

"This isn't the way we'd do things if we had our druthers," said Bob Dach of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The migration solution

"Anadromous," is the word biologists use to describe fish like salmon and steelhead. It means they start life in fresh water, grow to adulthood in the ocean, then return to freshwater streams to spawn and -- in the case of salmon, but not necessarily steelhead -- die.

Historically, smolts from Northwest streams rode the wave of spring runoff to the ocean. The fish range in size from about 4 inches for most salmon to 8 inches for a typical young steelhead.

On a dammed river, the current is reduced and floods eliminated. A chinook salmon spawned in Idaho's Clearwater River must swim through pools above four Snake River dams and four Columbia River dams before reaching the brine. Predators thrive in the pools, and the water can become intolerably warm.

The "migration solution" was how the Corps introduced barging in 1968. Newspaper accounts boasted that salmon would "ride tourist class" and "loaf past deadly river dams."

Today, the Corps has a fleet of eight barges, and elaborate fish-collection systems at Lower Granite, Little Goose and Lower Monumental dams on the lower Snake River. A maze of screens and pipes deflect fish away from the dams' turbines and into tubes where pressurized water jets them into sorting systems and concrete tanks.

Most of the fish are never touched by human hands. But some are anesthetized, inspected and measured, and have a computer chip injected into their abdomens. The "pit tags" allow scientists to track the fish when they make their return migration as adults.

Once a day during the peak of the run, the captured smolts are sucked from the tanks into barge holds, where water continually circulates from the river.

Tugs push the barges downstream, passing through locks at the various dams. The smolts are flushed from the barges just below Bonneville Dam, the lowest Columbia River dam. The smolts still have 140 miles to swim before reaching the Pacific.

In addition to the Snake River collection systems, there's one at McNary Dam, on the Columbia River. It's normally used only in late summer, when the big river is running warm. This year, the Corps has already started collecting and barging fish from McNary.

While few smolts die on the barges, scientists debate how many die later, from stresses caused by the trip.

Certainly, a smaller percentage of fish from the Snake River return from the ocean as spawning adults, compared to those that start life in other Columbia River tributaries. How large a factor barging plays in that "delayed mortality" is a source of argument.

Due to the uncertainty, the Corps normally leaves up to half the fish in the Snake, helping them migrate by spilling water over the tops of dams. It's the closest the agency can come to mimicking a natural river.

An exceptional year

Water spilled over dams does not produce electricity. So, in a nod to the energy crisis, there will be no spill over Snake River dams this year.

The Northwest Power Planning Council has recommended limited spills at Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day dams on the lower Columbia. Bonneville Power Administration has not yet agreed, and time is getting short.

Farther upstream on the Columbia, the Grant County Public Utility District is seeking permission to reduce spills at two dams.

To compensate for reduced spills, the Corps is trying to barge every salmon and steelhead in the Snake and nearly half the fish that reach McNary.

The plan to limit spill and rely heavily on barging runs counter to the federal salmon-recovery strategy released last year by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The so-called "biological opinion" calls for spills at all federal dams salmon must pass. And Grant County PUD has previously committed to spilling 43 percent of the water reaching Wanapum and 61 percent at Priest Rapids for a period of five to seven weeks.

But the NMFS mandate allowed the BPA to forgo spills by declaring an energy emergency.

The combined impact of skyrocketing electricity rates and the second-worst drought on record has made this such a year.

Environmental groups characterized NMFS's biological opinion as weak even before the emergency declaration. Now, "we realize that three vaguely worded paragraphs (referring to an energy emergency) allow them to set the whole thing aside," said Jeff Curtis of Trout Unlimited.

Trout Unlimited and 12 other groups filed a federal lawsuit this month to force more aggressive salmon-saving efforts, arguing the government isn't complying with the Endangered Species Act.

Ultimately, they seek removal of four Snake River dams in Washington. For this year, they want the government to become more aggressive in claiming some of the water used for other purposes.

Although many Northwest reservoirs are depleted, some used for irrigation in southern Idaho are not, the groups note.

"Rather than getting water out of Idaho for fish and to generate electricity, we're going to use it for irrigating potatoes, for which prices are very low," said Curtis.

And while the government has restricted the use of Snake and Columbia River locks by recreational boaters, it has not limited commercial users.

Locks are the river's equivalent of an elevator. They are massive chambers built into the dams that fill with water to lift or lower boats so they can navigate the river.

If allowed to go through dam turbines, the water required to fill a typical lock would generate as much electricity as a family of four uses in eight months. A barge loaded with wheat goes through eight locks en route from Lewiston, Idaho, to the Pacific.
(bluefish inserts - from "Restoring the Lower Snake River" p. 30, "A typical system lock with a volume of 133 acre feet and a power head of 100 feet, the calculation is 133 acre-feet * 100 feet * 0.87 conversion = 11,751 kWh. In 1994, 4493 lock flushes diverted 590,480 acre-feet foregoing 50.56 million kWh)

"Probably, they'll die"

In 1977, the Northwest faced drought conditions similar to this year. There was no spill over the dams.

Before that year's migration started, the Corps predicted it would load 6 million to 8 million smolts aboard barges. Instead, it collected 2.2 million.

"Because of the drought, streams were exceptionally low and millions of migrants failed to reach the dams before water temperatures began to rise excessively," reads a newspaper account. "Most of the fish will perish in the Snake and its tributaries."

Corps biologist Jim Athearn said the 1977 situation may not have been as bad as it sounds.

Biologists may have erred when they predicted the size of the fish runs. He believes many steelhead, a sea-going form of rainbow trout, aborted the migration, seeking refuge in the deepest, coldest reaches of dam reservoirs.

"There were reports of exceptionally good rainbow trout fishing that year," Athearn said.

Other biologists have called 1977 a disaster, and some worry that this year's run is shaping up the same way. What was expected to be a small run of salmon and steelhead may become a minuscule run.

The National Marine Fisheries Service expected 1.7 million juvenile chinook to reach McNary Dam by May 9. Sample surveys indicate 187,000 had arrived by then. Fewer than half the expected steelhead are showing up at McNary and Lower Granite dams. At Rock Island Dam, samples show fewer than 10 percent of the expected steelhead and about 20 percent of the expected chinook.

Scientists won't know until summer whether the fish are just slow this year.

"There was an expectation that because of the low flows, there would be a delayed and protracted migration," said Paul Wagner, NMFS fisheries biologist. "That's the optimistic outlook."

Pessimists fear the run will be shorter than normal because the rivers will become deadly warm and low.

"What we're seeing now is the fastest fish getting to Lower Granite" and other collection sites, said Michelle DeHart, director of the Fish Passage Center, which is run by Northwest states and the tribes -- groups that have been pressing for more spills.

"The key is, what's going to happen to the slowest fish?" DeHart said. "Probably they'll die, just as they did in 1977."

Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
Salmon, Interrupted
Spokesman Review, May 13, 2001

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