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Too Big To Fail: After a big setback, questions about the salmon recovery plan 

An artist's digital rendering of fish entering the control tower. Bill Bakke isn't exactly a celebrity. But if you fish in Oregon, particularly if you

click to enlarge An artist's digital rendering of fish entering the control tower. : An artist's digital rendering of fish entering the control tower.
  • An artist's digital rendering of fish entering the control tower. : An artist's digital rendering of fish entering the control tower.
An artist's digital rendering of fish entering the control tower. Bill Bakke isn't exactly a celebrity. But if you fish in Oregon, particularly if you fly fish - which it seems everyone does these days- you owe him a debt of gratitude.

A lifelong conservationist, Bakke is the man responsible for removing hatchery fish from the Metolius River in the mid 1990s and imposing a slot limit on rainbow trout on the Lower Deschutes, a move that has resulted in bigger fish in the river year round.

I called Bakke this past week to get his take on the somewhat spectacular setback at the multi-million dollar fish collection facility at Pelton Dam. The fish tower, as it is sometimes called, is the linchpin of a plan to reintroduce salmon and steelhead to the Upper Deschutes Basin, which includes parts of Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties. Just a few weeks earlier, crews working on the fish passage system watched as a critical piece of the mechanism, a 40-foot wide, 140-foot long tube that cycles water from the fish collection facility into the dam's turbine system, split into pieces during its installation. A portion of the nearly 290-ton conduit floated to the surface, while several other pieces dropped to the bottom of the lake.

The mishap is expected to delay the completion of the tower, which project managers had hoped to bring on line this week, by a minimum of four months at a time when thousands of juvenile fish are beginning their ocean migration.


Bakke was the lone voice of opposition, or at least skepticism, among formal stakeholders regarding the plan to spend more than $100 million on an experimental fish passage facility. He isn't opposed to re-introducing salmon and steelhead to their native waters, but he questioned how much money should be spent on a plan that relied on an unproven fish passage system.

"I've always been skeptical that fish passage is going to work, but I was in the minority," he said.

Instead, Bakke wanted the sizeable pot of money generated by the re-licensing project-roughly $138 million- to be invested below the dam where there is a relatively healthy, but still threatened, run of wild steelhead and Chinook salmon.

"I wanted to invest bellow the dams in the tributaries to take care of what is left because all that was once above the dam is now extinct," said Bakke, who founded both Oregon Trout and the Native Fish Society, where he now serves as executive director.

The debates were settled several years ago when the Warm Springs Tribe, the most powerful stakeholder given its treaty rights, reached a re-licensing deal with the dam's owner, Portland General Electric, which made the fish passage a centerpiece of the new mitigation plan. And Bakke's group signed onto the deal, but he remains skeptical that the fish passage system can work.

With a giant piece of the fish passage tower sitting at the bottom of Lake Billy Chinook, Bakke is sounding less like Chicken Little these days. While PGE representatives have called the incident a minor setback in the grand scheme of the massive reintroduction project, they have yet to figure just when or how they will salvage the remainder of the pipe.

PGE Spokesman Steven Corson said the company has used remote devices to dive the 200 or so feet below the surface. The devices have captured images but not a whole lot more information, Corson said.

"It's not an area where we can just drop a couple of divers to look around. It's a pretty challenging environment to work in," he said.

The situation underscores the difficulty of engineering a solution to the problems created by dams, not just here, but across the Pacific Northwest where the dams have contributed to the decline of native salmon and steelhead populations. In many cases, dam owners are bowing to pressure to remove the structures entirely in the hopes of restoring or rebuilding historic runs of fish. Two years ago, PGE dynamited the Marmot Dam on the Sandy River, opening up hundreds of miles of spawning habitat for the river's salmon and steelhead runs. On the Rogue River, irrigators and conservationists are working together on removing a series of dams along the 157-mile stretch below Lost Creek Lake, starting with the Savage Rapids dam east of Grants Pass. PacifiCorp meanwhile has pledged to remove its four dams on the Upper Klamath River by 2020. On a larger scale, roughly 273 dams were removed between 1999 and 2006 in the United States, according to The Oregonian.

But for several reasons, including, ironically, that the dams had already wiped out the historic runs of salmon and steelhead in the upper basin, removal of the Deschutes dams was never really on the table during PGE's relicensing. With that in mind conservationists, including Bakke, set out to get the best deal they could. The tribes got an ownership stake in the dam, and a share of its profits, while upper basin advocates got an unprecedented investment in fish restoration and a project that could serve as a template for rebuilding salmon in steelheads runs in other places.

And despite the setback, PGE and other stakeholders say they remain highly optimistic about the prospect for long-term success of the fish passage system.

"I think the tribes are still feeling good. It's just unfortunate that it's going to be delayed. But there is a backup plan until they get it corrected. But in the long term we're still optimistic that it's going to work," said Bobby Bruno, natural resources manager for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

click to enlarge construction at the fish passage facility where work has been delayed several months, or longer.
  • construction at the fish passage facility where work has been delayed several months, or longer.
construction at the fish passage facility where work has been delayed several months, or longer.At this point it's not yet clear just how long that delay will be, or how much it will cost. If the conduit is severely damaged, it may have to be remanufactured. If that's the case, it could be ten months or more before the facility is up and running. In the meantime, more than 400,000 salmon and steelhead smolts that were planted in the upper river from the Metolius to the Crooked River are scheduled to start their downstream migration this spring.

The plan is to use traditional screw traps to capture these fish and transport them directly from the tributaries around Lake Billy Chinook and the Pelton and Round Butte dams. PGE Fisheries Biologist James Bartlett said the traps range in effectiveness from zero to about 30 percent.

So far, more than 500 juvenile Chinook have been captured from the Metolius and trucked around the dam. Two of those fish, all of which were fitted with transponders, have already made it over the Bonneville Dam on Columbia, the final man-made obstacle on the path to the ocean. Bartlett, who is heading up the fish-passage work, is clearly pleased with the news. Over a three-way call, his voice becomes immediately animated when I ask about the condition of the fish he has seen.

"They are just awesome, healthy little critters and they look great," Bartlett said.

And he's clearly pleased that he's had a hand in moving the first fish from the upper basin to the ocean in more than four decades. To put it another way, it's been since the Kennedy Administration since a salmon made its way from the Metolius to the Pacific Ocean.

Bartlett believes those first two fish are a sign of good things to come and calls the fish tower debacle a "speed bump."

Bakke isn't quite as optimistic, given the relatively poor record of fish passage around dams. While his group signed off on the final plan that channeled most of the restoration work upstream of the dams, he said there is a lot of work that remains to be done on the lower river where wild fish populations are relatively stable, but could be stronger with support from a deep-pocketed project like the recovery effort.

Of the $138 million that PGE is spending on recovery, just a little more than $1 million was spent directly on habitat restoration below the dam, which went to the acquisition of Trout Creek Ranch, a 3,000-acre ranch with three miles of spawning habitat.

It was a significant acquisition, but there's a lot of work that remains to be done. For example, many of the spawning tributaries aren't yet equipped with fish screens to keep hatchery fish from interbreeding with the wild stock, which threatens the long-term health of the wild runs. (Recent studies have shown that hatchery fish that reproduce in the wild do not fare nearly as well as truly wild fish.)

"There wasn't the extent of investment below the dams in terms of the tributaries," Bakke said. "They did a lot of research on how the dams might be affecting the rivers in terms of dissolved oxygen, wood debris and gravel movement. I don't mean to say they completely ignored their responsibilities, but the bulk of the money went into fish passage above the dam."

PGE's Corson doesn't necessarily see it that way. He points out that the massive investment in the $108 million fish collection facility isn't all about fish passage. The elaborate collection facility is also designed to address some of the temperature problems in Lake Billy Chinook that have led to increased water temperatures on the lower river.

In that way, the new technology will benefit fish from the dams down to the mouth of the river, Corson said.

While actual habitat restoration work has been limited in the lower river, dollars have been pouring into the upper basin. This summer, the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council is embarking on a roughly $1.7 million project in conjunction with Deschutes Basin Land Trust to restore nearly two miles of stream habitat outside Sisters at Camp Polk Meadow that was destroyed when the Army Corps of Engineers excavated and straightened Whychus Creek after a catastrophic 1964 flood. In doing so, the corps also destroyed some of the best fish spawning and habitat along the tributary that was once home to a run of steelhead numbering in the thousands of fish.

Regardless of whether salmon and steelhead ever make it back to the upper basin - which everyone certainly hopes that they will - this kind of restoration work will benefit other native fish, said Ryan Houston, the Watershed Council's executive director.

"We're sort of looking at this as a dual set of objectives, but what the steelhead gives is attention, movement, interest and excitement...It has been a shot in the arm," Houston said.

As a result, the Watershed Council and other groups that are focused on restoration efforts in the upper basin are finding that it's easier now to get funding for their work - even as some critical projects on the lower river such as installing fish screens to separate hatchery from wild fish on key spawning tributaries sit on the shelf.

In addition to the fish passage and water circulation tower at Pelton Dam, PGE and the Confederated tribes are investing more than $21 million into restoration projects in the upper basin, which includes placing logs and trees along roughly 10 miles of stream in the Metolius to create pools and shelter for juvenile salmon and steelhead.

The power company and tribes aren't the only ones pouring money into the upper basin in hopes of restoring salmon and steelhead. The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board which uses a combination of state lottery dollars and federal grants to fund stream restoration work has committed $4 million to upper basin habitat restoration, including $830,000 for the Whychus Creek project at Camp Polk Meadow.

By way of contrast, fish screens to protect native fish from interbreeding with hatchery fish cost about $16,000 and there are at least half a dozen still needed on good spawning habitat on the lower river, Bakke tells me. But he's quick to add that the real commitment is the manpower to check the screens on a daily basis to weed out the hatchery fish while allowing the native salmon and steelhead to continue on their migration.

Still, Bakke said he's grateful for what he got out of the negotiations - the acquisition of the Trout Creek Ranch and one of the oldest water rights on that key spawning tributary.

"It's not sour grapes. I made a pitch and I lost," said Bakke.

But he isn't overly encouraged by the initial setback with the fish passage tower.

Stakeholders who have made a bigger investment both politically and financially in the fish passage say they are aware of the criticisms, but they aren't losing faith.

"In the end, we're committed to this. We still have confidence in the technology here. There's been a tremendous amount of work with our partners. This is a project that has been 30 to 40 years in the making," Corson said.

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