It was a sad summer for sockeye — hundreds of thousands of fish returning to the Columbia Basin hit unprecedented warm water and died far short of their spawning grounds.
Only 300 made it up the Yakima River by waiting until September for water to cool enough to make the journey.
That’s far shy of the 2,600 that returned to spawn in the Cle Elum Reservoir last year, descendants of the Yakama Nation’s reintroduction program there.
Biologists say the drought conditions — which are expected to become more common with global warming — present real challenges for sockeye recovery. They say the fish should benefit from the 30-year Yakima Basin Integrated Plan to improve water management in the basin.
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But critics say the poor return casts doubts on the $4 billion to $6 billion plan, which relies on a strong sockeye recovery as part of its economic foundation.
Economic analyses of the plan show the most cost-effective projects are fish passages that would allow sockeye to reach the region’s five reservoirs.
The value of a successful sockeye recovery boosts the bottom line for the total plan so that less cost-effective projects, such as water conservation and new reservoir construction, can go forward as well.
At a recent meeting of the workgroup that designed the plan, Miles McPhee, a critic of the plan’s proposed reservoirs, asked why supporters continue to rely on sockeye forecasts that seem overly optimistic, given the hot water the fish face.
“My concern is that they have really fudged the numbers to make it look good based on this nonuse value of sockeye salmon,” McPhee, a Nile Valley resident and scientist, said in a later interview. “Of course everyone wants to see a fish run return, but at what cost?”
And he’s not the only one concerned about the integrated plan’s sockeye population projections. Steven Katz, a Washington State University professor of environmental science, said the projections rely on unrealistic growth rates.
“The population would have to grow at an extraordinarily high rate for 30 years to meet their targets,” said Katz, who reviewed the fish estimates as part of an independent benefit-cost analysis of the plan.
Sustaining that sort of growth will be extra challenging when some summers are likely to be extremely hot and dry, like this past one, he added.
Sockeye are at particular risk to high water temperatures because they return to spawn during the high summer and need to reach spawning grounds in lakes by early fall.
Fish biologists supporting the plan say it is the best option for salmon and steelhead survival because it also calls for extra water to raise river flows when fish need a boost, as well as restoration of floodplain and wetland habitat.
“In general, the sorts of measures we think we should be taking to address climate change are the measures that are in the Integrated Plan,” said Sean Gross, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Ellensburg. “But warm temperatures are still certainly a problem and we don’t exactly know how best to address it.”
The key is having a few days of cool water when sockeye can migrate upstream safely, said Michael Garrity, the Puget Sound and Columbia Basin director for the conservation group American Rivers.
And it doesn’t take much of a cool window to encourage them. Last year, more than 2,000 sockeye swam up the Lower Yakima in just a few days following a late summer rain, said Dave Fast, a senior scientist for the Yakama Nation. This year, the September window arrived too late for the many fish that died waiting in the Columbia.
“Obviously, in some drought years, we’re not going to get good numbers of fish up the Columbia and into the Yakima,” Fast said. “But one bad year is not the end of the population.”
As to whether the entire plan leans too heavily on overly optimistic sockeye projections, Garrity said the irrigators’ decision to pay their share for water storage projects should ease taxpayer concerns.
“The fish passage projects are overwhelmingly cost-effective and if the (future sockeye population) is lower than predicted, it’s still likely to be positive,” he said. “And the impact to the taxpayers of the storage projects is low because the agriculture community is making that bet with their own money.”
It’s rare for projects intended to protect or restore fish and wildlife to go through detailed cost-benefit analysis. While critics of the plan call the sockeye estimates overblown, supporters say the analysis also missed real benefits that are difficult to quantify. The truth may be somewhere in between, because putting a dollar figure on wild fish populations isn’t an exact science.
And despite being skeptical of the high-end projections of sockeye populations, Katz said even something at the lower end would be impressive from a conservation perspective, given that 10 years ago there were no sockeye at all in the Yakima River.