During a public meeting last week Grant County PUD officials previewed concept designs planned for future facilities for supplementation of spring chinook salmon on the White River and Nason Creek, two tributaries to the Wenatchee River in central Washington.
Spring chinook that inhabit the two Wenatchee tributaries are part of an “evolutionarily significant unit” that is listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. The PUD funds a variety of fish and wildlife enhancement projects as mitigation for impacts caused by the dams it owns, Wanapum and Priest Rapids.
The proposal discussed at the Oct. 13 meeting in Leavenworth would attempt reduce to the White River facility footprint and effects on the local environment by using existing hatcheries outside the Wenatchee Basin to incubate eggs and rear young fish before they are transported to the White River site for final rearing and acclimation through the winter and spring months. An original consideration was to build hatcheries in the White and Nason subbasins.
The option is expected to show marked improvement as fish that spend winter months in the river or creek of their birth appear to have higher survival rates and are more likely to find their way back to spawn as adults than fish release after a short-term acclimation.
Nine months of collaborative effort by a work group made up of area residents, civic leaders, agency personnel and Grant PUD staff produced recommended designs that identify options for protecting endangered spring chinook that are also sensitive to the special qualities of the upper Wenatchee landscape.
The work group formed in early 2010, dedicated long hours and many meetings to address concerns regarding Grant PUD’s obligation to construct and fund long-term facilities that will aid in the recovery of White River and Nason Creek spring chinook salmon, both part of a group of fish listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The work group’s initial goal was to identify optimal facility designs, which will replace Grant PUD’s current process of short-term acclimation in the White River. That process has not resulted in acceptable rates of returning fish.
“The benefactor here will be the spring chinook and that is most important. To conserve and protect this cold water fishery is paramount, and I think we are well on our way in the White River,” said Bob Stroup, an area resident and a member of the Icicle Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “We’ve come a long way since this started, and this was a very thorough presentation. I am very impressed by your approach to this project, and I look forward to working together in the future.”
“As a member of the White River Work Group, I really appreciated visiting hatchery facilities to see what the White River tanks would look like,” said Rachel Scown who represented the North Central Washington Audubon Society on the work group. “I was concerned about how the acclimation tanks and ponds would affect the adjacent soils of the wetlands. Grant PUD made a number of technical experts available so we could ask questions and have a productive discussion about what will work best on this site.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, which has ESA oversight, determined in a 2008 biological opinion that there is a high risk of extinction for the White River and Nason Creek spring chinook populations if hatchery supplementation is not implemented.
The components of spring chinook spawning in the White River and Nason Creek are critical to recovery of the Wenatchee spring chinook population and are at critically low abundance levels. Supplementation using adaptive management is necessary to recover this population, NOAA Fisheries says.
The White River captive brood supplementation program represents an opportunity to provide a short-term boost in adult abundance while maintaining population diversity and productivity within the Wenatchee River spring chinook population, according to Grant PUD.
The White River spring chinook population is one of five remaining spring chinook spawning aggregates in the Wenatchee River spring Chinook population within the Upper Columbia River ESU. The White River spawning aggregate represents what appears to be a distinct sub-population within the Wenatchee spring Chinook salmon population whose abundance levels are critically low, thereby limiting the abundance of the Wenatchee Basin spring chinook salmon population.
Currently, White River spring chinook salmon are being raised at the Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery located just east of Stevenson, Wash., in the Columbia River Gorge, before they are transported by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists over 240 miles to their home stream in the White River basin for the short-term acclimation and spring release at a variety of sites. The program has been ongoing since 2004.
The plan now is to plunge into the permitting and preliminary planning phases. Related permits are required from local, state and federal entities. The PUD hopes to win those permits by 2012 and launch construction in late 2013 or early 2014, according to spokeswoman Dorothy Harris. Under that scenario the first crop of young fish to overwinter in the new facilities would be released for their migration toward the Pacific in 2015.
While the primary focus of last week’s meeting was on White River spring chinook salmon recovery efforts, Grant PUD plans to apply lessons learned in the White River public process to the Nason Creek program.
In a parallel process, a policy group formed to discuss technical issues such as best management practices for hatcheries, habitat protection and loss of fish to predators in Lake Wenatchee. The policy group drafted memos summarizing their conclusions regarding these and other technical and policy-related concerns to the Priest Rapids Coordinating Committee and its Hatchery Subcommittee. The committee, made up representatives from Grant PUD, NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Colville Confederated Tribes, Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, have established objectives to help recover natural fish populations to self-sustaining and harvestable levels through the mid-Columbia region and to mitigate for continued fish mortality.
To continue engagement with the public, Grant PUD plans to host annual meetings on the White River and Nason Creek programs.
The meeting presentation, technical report and information on other fish protection programs supported by Grant PUD are available online at http://www.gcpud.org/naturalResources/fishWaterWildlife/habitatHatcheries.htm