For Deschutes fish, a brand new route
A year after a major setback, project to restore fish runs is up and running
By Kate Ramsayer / The Bulletin
Published: April 17. 2010 4:00AM PST
LAKE BILLY CHINOOK — Brad Wymore had it down to a science.
At a fish sorting facility Thursday morning at Lake Billy Chinook, he scooped up a net’s worth of young salmon and slipped them into a tub of water and anesthesia.
When the fish stopped flopping as much, he picked them out, one by one, and waved them through an electronic tag detector. He snipped off a small facial bone, clicked a counter to add the fish the tally and shuttled them down a water-filled chute to a holding tank.
A truck waited nearby to drive the salmon around the three dams of the Pelton Round Butte complex, where they would start their migration down the Lower Deschutes and toward the Pacific Ocean.
The fish-sorting facility is one component of $100 million-plus project that Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs have been planning for more than a decade. It’s designed to allow fish to get past the dams in the Deschutes River — which had blocked fish passage for about half a century — and restore runs of salmon and steelhead to the Upper Deschutes.
And a year after a 140-foot-tall tower snapped apart while it was being assembled, sinking to the floor of Lake Billy Chinook and setting project back more than six months, the fish sorting facility is up and running at the base of the lake.
About 45,0000 gallons of water a second are flowing in through two 40-foot-wide, V-shaped screens at the front of the facility. Fish, caught up in the fast flowing water, are swept through pipes built into the 5 million pound floating structure, and pumped up to the fish sorting facility, where they flop into holding pens.
“We’re already catching as many as we hoped we would,” said Don Ratliff, senior aquatic biologist with Portland General Electric.
It’s close to the peak migration season for the chinook salmon that dozens of volunteers placed into the upper tributaries of the Deschutes, including Whychus Creek a couple of years ago.
And between 200 and 500 chinook and sockeye a day have been finding their way to the fish facility.
“Things have really picked up,” Jim Bartlett, a biologist with the power company, said Thursday morning. “I’d guess we had probably a 400-fish day.”
Still, the fish counts are far from where project organizers hope to be in the coming years.
The goal is to eventually have between 5,000 and 10,000 chinook salmon pass through the facility each day during the peak of the spring migration, Ratliff said, and have 50,000 to 100,0000 leaving the reservoir total.
But it could take more than a decade to build up population to that level, he said, noting future generations of fish could be better adapted to the conditions in Lake Billy Chinook and the Upper Deschutes — where they have to be able to find food, stake out habitat and avoid predators.
“The ones we’re catching here, they’ve stood the test, and they’re the winners,” Ratliff said.
Biologists are also catching kokanee at the fish passage facility, and sending them downstream. When kokanee migrate to the ocean, they undergo physical changes and become sockeye salmon, and the project designers want to see if they can help establish a run of sockeye as well.
So far, so good
So far, biologists have sent about 5,800 chinook, 1,800 sockeye and about six steelhead — which typically migrate later in the spring — through the sorting facility.
Those numbers are promising, said Brett Hodgson, a fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We’re early in the process, and things are very preliminary,” Hodgson said. “But the numbers they’re catching so far, particularly on chinook and sockeye, are pretty encouraging.”
The project at the dam changes the way water flows in Lake Billy Chinook, he said, so it will take a while for the currents in the reservoir to get into a set pattern.
Because of that, biologists won’t be able to tell until next year exactly how well the facility is working.
Still, there have been some problems at the facility.
Occasionally, too much water has flowed down the chutes that sort the fish by size, mixing medium-sized fish in with bigger ones, or inch-long fry in with 6-inch smolts.
But that needs to be avoided, so that the fish don’t eat each other while crowded in the small tanks.
“It’s working OK, but we think it could work better,” Ratliff said, noting some adjustments would be made this year.
Reconnecting a river
Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, toured the facility earlier along with others from the conservation community.
Along with the construction of the fish intake and sorting facility, groups like the river conservancy, the Deschutes Land Trust and the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council have been working on efforts to improve the habitat for the salmon and steelhead.
The hope is to have fish be able to pass between the upper and lower sections of the Deschutes River again, he said.
“Our objective is to see connectivity, to see the river reconnected and restored,” Heisler said.
And so it’s exciting to see that the project can actually work, Heisler said, and to see that the tiny fry volunteers placed in Whychus Creek and the Metolius River a couple years ago are now being collected as 8-inch fish.
“It’s pretty amazing,” he said, noting that many people were uncertain it would work.
And seeing hundreds of fish a day come through the facility is exciting for the project’s planners as well.
“We’re pretty pleased,” Ratliff said. “It was a 15-year effort. It’s actually amazing to see it all work.”
Kate Ramsayer can be reached at 541-617-7811 or firstname.lastname@example.org.