$525 million plan aims to protect Columbia, Snake River fish

By Kevin McCullen, Herald staff writerJune 24, 2010 

Modifications to dams and habitat restoration in tributaries are part of a comprehensive three-year, $525 million federal plan released Wednesday to protect endangered Columbia and Snake River fish.

Structural improvements, from new bypasses to modifying spillway chutes, are planned at dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers to help boost populations of federally listed salmon and steelhead, according to the 2010-13 implementation plan of the Federal Columbia River Power System BiOp plan.

Thousands of acres of riparian habitat in crucial tributaries where salmon and steelhead spawn in the Snake and Columbia River systems are targeted for protection or improvement, including about 200 acres in the Tucannon River watershed in southeast Washington alone, according to the plan.

Actions to control predators like Caspian terns and non-native fish also are included.

All of the myriad of actions, which also include everything from water purchases in Idaho to funding hatchery programs that target particularly declining species like Snake River sockeye, complement each other, said Michael Milstein of the Bonneville Power Administration.

"The bottom line here is there is no silver bullet, no one single (method) to protect salmon," Milstein said. "It's all of these things, spread out through the system."

Modifications to spillway weirs at Lower Monumental, John Day and Little Goose dams and other improvements to dams in the system already are helping federal managers achieve a goal of 96 percent and 93 percent survival and passage of spring and summer chinook, respectively, at the dams, according to the 250-page plan.

More spillway improvements are planned at other dams. And the location of juvenile fish bypass system outfalls will be moved at several dams -- including Lower Monumental, McNary and Little Goose, said Rock Peters, fish program manager for the Northwest region of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The outfalls will be moved away from high-flow conditions and underwater structure where predators like pikeminnow and smallmouth bass prey on juvenile fish as they are returned to the river below the dams, Peters said.

"There is stress on the juveniles after they go through the system, so this will give them a few minutes to recover and move safely downstream," he said.

Passive integrated transponder (PIT) detectors will be installed in spillways at other dams to better study adult survival and passage through tags placed in juvenile fish. Also called for is development of a program at Lower Granite to improve survival and reconditioning of kelt, adult steelhead that return upstream to spawn and then return to the ocean again.

"We have a significant investment in trying to improve the reconditioning of kelt and get additional benefit from them," Peters said.

A series of tributary habitat improvement projects also are important parts of the plan, Milstein said.

Among them is the purchase of water in central Idaho's Lemhi watershed, which will return water to spawning streams for Snake River steelhead and chinook, according to the plan.

In the Grand Ronde watershed in northeast Oregon, the plan calls for installation of fish passage structures and removal of diversions to improve access to 45 miles of streams. Nearly a half-mile of stream channel in the Upper Grand Ronde also will be reconnected.

Improvements in the Tucannon River watershed include reconnecting flood plains and adding woody debris to streams to increase the diversity of habitat.

One small project in the Tucannon is improving water quality and habitat for fall chinook and steelhead in locations in Garfield County by working with landowners to convert from conventional tillage farming to no-till/direct seeding, and spraying for noxious weeds and reseeding those areas with native grasses.

In the estuary below Bonneville Dam, about 12 acres of saltwater wetlands will be restored, with eventually up to 96 acres restored, officials said.

Studies of predators of juvenile fish, from smallmouth bass to channel catfish, and control of documented predatory fish like pikeminnow comprise another facet of the plan, officials said.

Federal agencies also will undertake projects to construct habitat friendly to Caspian terns to coax them away from areas such as East Sand Island in the Columbia River estuary, where they now feast on juvenile fish heading to the ocean. Hazing and installing wires to keep birds away from areas below some dams also will continue.

The plan also calls on federal agencies to look to the future. By December 2011, they must develop a long-range contingency plan for salmon and steelhead recovery. That includes identifying more actions that could be taken in the hydroelectric system, and re-introducing salmon populations to areas upstream where they are functionally extirpated.

Federal managers believe efforts undertaken in 2008 and 2009 to improve fish survival are working, citing returns of adults both years. Counts of adult and jack summer and fall chinook and sockeye passing Bonneville Dam exceeded the 10-year average, while spring chinook, steelhead and sockeye were below.

This year, the Northwest Fisheries Science Center predicted a strong run of spring chinook, and through June 15, the number that had passed Bonneville was 275,912.

Meanwhile, 135,058 sockeye had passed Bonneville by Tuesday, the majority in the last few days, Peters said.

-- Kevin McCullen: 582-1535; kmccullen@tricityherald.com

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