December 14, 2009 - Fish Transfer Facility Is Up and Running

January 4, 2010
December 14, 2009 - Fish Transfer Facility Is Up and Running

Fish transfer facility is up and running  - After 2 years and setbacks, including a structural failure, ‘we’re catching fish’

By Kate Ramsayer / The Bulletin
Published: December 14. 2009 4:00AM PST

The fish and water intake tower at Round Butte Dam is designed so that fish following water currents toward the Pacific Ocean will be drawn into an underwater structure, sorted and marked. Crews will then drive them around the Round Butte, Pelton and Reregulating dams for release into the Lower Deschutes. ... get sorted by size so the smaller ones don’t get eaten ...

Here’s how it works:

Scooping out the small silvery fish from a holding pen, biologist Jim Bartlett was excited about the day’s catch.

“Man, we had a really good collection day,” Bartlett said to fellow Portland General Electric biologist Don Ratliff.

“This is the beginning of it,” Ratliff replied. “It’ll be 100 times over in April, and you guys will be scrambling. It’ll be like the post office at Christmas.”

Two years after construction began on the fish and water intake tower at the base of Lake Billy Chinook, and more than a dozen years after planning began on the project to restore runs of salmon and steelhead in the Upper Deschutes Basin, crews completed construction of the tower earlier this month.

And hours after the water started flowing through the structure, chinook and then kokanee started swimming through the 30-foot-wide entrances to the tower and flopped into the holding pens at the fish transfer facility.

“It seems to be working, it’s really cool ... We’re catching fish,” said Rat-liff, Portland General Electric’s senior aquatic biologist.

Discussions on returning salmon and steelhead to the Upper Deschutes Basin started in 1995 and 1996, Ratliff said. The power company and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs — co-owners of the Pelton Dam — had started the federal relicensing process.

Building the dam had blocked the migration path of salmon and steelhead, so its owners decided to design a way to collect the fish and then truck them around the obstacles to the Lower Deschutes to meet federal requirements.

The resulting $100 million-plus structure, which was delayed after a tower piece snapped into pieces last spring, will now have a monthlong testing phase to ensure everything works as expected, said Jim Manion, general manager of Warm Springs Power and Water Enterprises.

Warm Springs paid for a portion of the construction, while PGE and its ratepayers paid for about $80 million of the project’s cost, according to its Web site.

Crews will test the speed of water entering the V-shaped screens, ensuring that it’s not so fast that fish get sucked against the screen, and making sure all the components work.

And the pioneering fish collected over the last couple weeks are a good sign, he said.

“It indicates that there are fish in the reservoir, and they are wanting to move, so that’s really exciting,” he said.

Last Tuesday, Bartlett measured and tagged the new arrivals by clipping a small bone, before driving them around the dams.

Even though it’s not the typical migration season for chinook, 15 smolts, or fish ready to start the trip to the ocean, had swum into the facility one day last week.

And 20 kokanee had followed the current into the structure as well. When kokanee, a lake and river fish, migrate to the ocean, they become sockeye salmon. Another goal of the fish passage facility is to create a population of sockeye as well.

“As soon as they come into our facility, they are sockeye,” Bartlett said. “They’re going downstream.”

Working out the bugs

Some problems had cropped up in the first few days of the fish passage facility.

After a couple of the initial fish flopped into the holding pen, the water flowed out of the pen overnight and the fish died. Later, too much water was entering the holding pen, and a third fish tried to jump up the flow and ended up landing on a platform.

But the crews adjusted the water flow, Ratliff said, and since then the 10 to 25 fish the facility has seen each day make it through safely.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, because we are catching some fish, and they’re coming through without looking like they’re scraped up,” he said.

Workers have also made adjustments to many of the moving parts at the facility, and are figuring things out so that in the spring, when the rush of migrating fish could descend on the facility, the biologists and technicians are ready for them.

But even with the fish and water intake tower up and running, Ratliff said that officials can’t truly count it as a success until they see the fish, now leaving Lake Billy Chinook as smolts, come back as adults in two years.

Ultimately, he said, biologists hope to have self-sustaining populations of salmon and steelhead, which don’t have to be supplemented by additional fry from hatcheries.

Staff are also checking the temperature of the water downstream of Pelton Dam, said Chad Croft, a project manager. One of the goals of the fish and water intake tower was to take water from the top or the bottom of the reservoir at different times of year, to cool the temperatures of the Lower Deschutes to a more natural range. The temperature changes have been modeled on computers, but people will monitor the actual temperature changes over the coming months.

And the project’s officials also want to make sure that the fish collection operation doesn’t interfere with the dam’s power production capabilities, he said.

Progress is made, but more work’s ahead

The facility is a one-of-a-kind structure, said Doug Sticka, a project manager. And that leads to difficulties, such as finding out how hard it is to construct things on water. But techniques used for this project could carry over to other efforts, he said, including PGE’s plans to build a similar — but less complicated — fish facility on the Clackamas River.

Getting to the testing and initial fish capture phase for this project, however, is an exciting step, said Ryan Houston, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council.

“It’s been discussed for so many years, and we’ve seen the engineering plans and computer models,” he said, “and it’s just fun to see it actually happen.”

His group and many others are working on other aspects of the fish reintroduction effort, including improving the habitat conditions upstream so young fish have a place to feed, hide and grow, and returning adults have a place to spawn.

And those efforts to help create healthy populations of salmon and steelhead will keep on going for years, Houston and Ratliff said. “The engineers and the people designing and people building the facility can relax,” Ratliff said. “But the rest of us in the basin trying to make the whole thing work have a lot to do.”

Kate Ramsayer can be reached at 541-617-7811 or at


Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2009

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