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Remaking the Klickitat

by Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer
The Columbian, August 29, 2004

CASTILE FALLS - The Klickitat River plunges through rounded walls of basalt, tumbling through a narrow canyon created when lava flowed from Mount Adams a half-million years ago.

A cliffside stairway descends to a platform suspended above the river's churning current. From the platform, near the midpoint of the series of cataracts collectively known as Castile Falls, a ladder leads down to the portal of a tunnel bathed in artificial light and chilled by glacial water.

Here in the darkened tunnel, workers are busily finishing an improved subterranean fish highway.

"When my grandkids get old enough, they'll be able to see the fish come up here," said Rick Dominguez, a worker from Toppenish whose wife and children are members of the Yakama Nation.

And so it comes to this.

The people most deeply rooted to the river and the iconic creatures it supports are left to reconstruct a 40-year-old improvement in the battle to restore wild salmon and steelhead to the Columbia River basin. The tunnel, as foreign as it seems to the natural function of the river, is necessary to help salmon that have lost the genetic instinct and ability to climb the falls on their own.

Tribal officials hope modern know-how will help to restore an ancient way of life.

Situated in the heart of the Yakama reservation, the falls once provided a fishery for tribal members who netted, hooked and even speared salmon from platforms above the water.

The $1.4 million federally funded project will enable fish to pass through two reconstructed tunnels that had become choked with sediment and debris. Biologists expect that, with the fix, as many as 200 salmon per year will pass the falls to spawn in more than 35 miles of habitat upriver. State and federal officials point to the tunnel reconstruction as a prime example of how to help wild salmon in a Columbia River basin that's been industrialized to the point of driving 12 stocks of salmon and steelhead nearly to extinction.

But fishery scientists in recent years have criticized such technological improvements as too little, too late.

Instead, many scientists have suggested dam managers adopt strategies such as drawing down reservoirs, spilling water away from turbines, or even breaching federal dams on the lower Snake River measures that allow a river to work more like a river.

Northwest political leaders have resisted those measures as economically painful.

"There is no big, bold stroke that's going to save salmon. The Northwest environment has been altered too much," said Larry Cassidy, one of two Washington representatives to the four-state Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which balances power production with wildlife protection. "But if we keep chipping away on it, we're going to make progress."

So, workers chip away at Castile Falls.

Making amends

The old Washington Department of Fisheries drilled the tunnels in the early 1960s. They did so partly to make amends for the dam-building that exacerbated the demise of salmon and steelhead across the Columbia River basin.

Upward of 16 million wild salmon and steelhead per year once returned to the free-flowing Columbia and tributaries such as the Klickitat. Today barely 3 million fish return to the Columbia basin, and most of those are raised in hatcheries. The Columbia has been turned into a stair-stepped series of reservoirs harnessed to supply hydroelectricity and irrigation for crops.

Recognizing the harm to salmon, Congress passed the Mitchell Act in 1938.

Mitchell Act funding is supposed to pay for hatcheries, fish screens and other measures to boost salmon populations depressed by man-made alterations to the river. Although the Klickitat remains undammed to this day, fishery scientists decided they could improve it to offset setbacks elsewhere.

Engineers wanted to drill a 3,200-foot-long tunnel, allowing salmon and steelhead to bypass all 11 waterfalls over the half-mile course of Castile Falls.

Problems from the start

Right from the start, it didn't work out.

Workers drilled 725 feet into the hillside on the upper end of the falls before they hit a pocket of glop. Too unstable for the tunneling technology of the time, the pocket of mud forced the planners to improvise.

They burrowed 135 feet back toward daylight, bypassing only two waterfalls on the upper end.

Their plan altered, engineers moved downriver to build a second tunnel 200 feet in length to help fish bypass two of the steepest cataracts within Castile Falls.

With the drilling completed, workers poured a series of concrete weirs along the floor of each of the tunnels. Fish were supposed to jump from pool to pool until they emerged on the upstream side.

That didn't work, either.

Anchored to the tunnel floors, the weirs filled in with rocks and debris. Instead of creating a stair-stepping series of small jumps and pools, the adult salmon and steelhead encountered a steady blast of water after entering the tunnel.

"The tunnel has actually blocked fish passage," said Bill Sharp, a fisheries biologist for the Yakama Nation.

In the 15 years Sharp has worked on the Klickitat, he's discovered fewer than a dozen redds, or nests, of salmon or steelhead that managed to spawn above the falls.

"They never got up here in great numbers because of the difficult passage," Sharp said.

A new kind of fish

The Klickitat is actually clogged with fish these days, but most are farm-raised in state hatcheries. Many are the progeny of fish native to streams hundreds of miles away and are ill-suited to successfully spawn in the Klickitat.

"Potential truncation of run timing and reduction of overall body size has resulted in an existing hatchery stock that cannot negotiate Castile Falls as effectively as the wild stock," according to a summary prepared for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in May of this year.

Elders grappled with the irony

In rebuilding the tunnel, Yakama tribal elders grappled with the irony of engineering their way out of a problem caused by 19th- and 20th-century industrialization.

"It was a real struggle," Sharp said. "But it was a dysfunctional system when I started, and I just want to make it better."

When the project is finished, the two tunnels will be enhanced with concrete partitions that provide resting spots for fish while preventing debris from collecting. Workers finished retrofitting new weirs to the upper tunnel last year and expect to complete the downriver tunnel this autumn.

Concrete, mixed on site, is being piped down the cliffside and loaded aboard wheelbarrows. A crew of nine men, mostly tribal members, pours the concrete into iron-reinforced wooden forms drilled into the rock walls.

These weirs each measure about 10 feet high, 18 inches wide and jut 4 feet from the rock walls, offset by a second weir on the opposite wall. A grate at the tunnel's upstream opening has been angled to bounce debris away from the tunnel, and the weirs are oriented to be self-scouring.

Sharp has no doubt the new solution will work.

"There are longer, darker tunnels that effectively pass fish," he said.

By opening 35 miles of prime spawning territory above the falls, Sharp said, tribal leaders believe they'll be able to seed the river with self-sustaining runs of primarily spring chinook and steelhead. Ideally, the tribe could re-establish their long-dormant fishery at Castile Falls.

"We're trying to restore just a fraction of the tribal economy," Sharp said. "The Klickitat has that potential."

The debate

Are technological improvements the best way to boost runs in an altered river system?

On one side: No single, bold stroke will restore wild salmon to the Columbia River basin, so biologists should focus on incremental improvements.

On another side: Technological improvements distract policy-makers from considering bolder initiatives, such as dam breaching.

Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer
Remaking the Klickitat
The Columbian, August 29, 2004

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