The reintroduction of spring chinook salmon and summer steelhead to habitat above the Pelton-Round Butte hydroelectric project on central Oregon’s Deschutes River is becoming a rite of spring for stakeholders, including school children and other local residents.
“We have an army of folks that show up to help,” the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Mike Gauvin told a March 17-18 gathering in Madras of biologists and researchers involved in habitat and fish restoration work in the Deschutes River basin. The Pelton-Round Butte Fisheries Project involves research and implementation work that is funded by Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which co-own the dams.
The total cost of the project, which was developed as part of the federal relicensing process for the dams, is expected to be about $130 million. That covers the construction of an underwater tower and juvenile fish collection facility ($108 million), as well as a series of supporting projects to improve environmental conditions for the fish, such as:
-- Releasing salmon and steelhead fry into upstream creeks and streams so they will return there to spawn.
-- Improving habitat along the tributaries and streams so the returning adult fish can spawn and the young fish can thrive.
While the reintroduction of spring chinook and/or steelhead fry in tributaries upstream of the dam has been ongoing since 2007, the fish collection facility has only been fully operational since December 2009. In its first year of operation more than 120,000 fish were captured, including 50,000 kokanee/sockeye salmon, 42,000 spring chinook salmon and 7,800 steelhead smolts. Most of the salmon and steelhead were transferred downstream to continue their migration to the Pacific Ocean.
As soon as this year 3-year-old “jack” chinook could return, with adult chinook and steelhead expected to begin returning in 2012. The kokanee are landlocked sockeye salmon that spend their entire life in freshwater. Fisheries managers are hoping to eventually rekindle an anadromous or ocean-going run of sockeye to the upper Deschutes.
Future returns from the outplanted fry could be used as part of the broodstock in hatcheries that produce fish for outplanting. Since 2008 a total of 1.26 million chinook fry have been outplanted in the Metolius (including in tributaries Lake and Spring creeks), the Crooked River (including Ochoco and McKay creeks) and the upper Deschutes (including Whychus Creek).
The chinook releases included 140,000 in 2008, 591,000 in 2009 and 527,000 in 2010.
Steelhead fry releases totaled 275,000 in 2007, 575,000 in 2008, 832,000 in 2009 and 611,000 in 2010.
“In 2009 we really started ramping up the numbers” in anticipation of the completion of the collection facility, said Gauvin, who is in charge of the fry outplanting program.
Gauvin said he expects 547,000 spring chinook fry and 686,000 steelhead fry will be outplanted this year.
Steelhead are not being outplanted in the Metolius, which is generally considered to be more favorable to the resident redband trout life history and never a large producer of steelhead.
A new strategy was tried in 2010 with the release into each of Lake Billy Chinook’s three arms migration-ready hatchery smolts -- 17,500 chinook and 13,350 steelhead. Gauvin said he expects 17,500 chinook smolts and 12,500 steelhead smolts to be released this year.
For now all of the fry releases come from Round Butte Hatchery stock but the hope is to eventually take Warm Springs River wild stock, Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery stock and returning fish to infuse hatchery broodstock. The steelhead fry likewise come from Round Butte Hatchery stock. It is envisioned at some point that wild fish from other Cascades stocks could be tapped and that returning fish would also be used as part of the broodstock.
The long-term goal is to establish self-sustaining, harvestable populations of steelhead, spring chinook and sockeye in the Deschutes River basin to fully utilize the available habitat and production capability.
The Metolius and Crooked rivers are tributaries that collide with the Deschutes just above Round Butte Dam, the uppermost project in three-dam Pelton-Round Butte complex. Round Butte’s reservoir, Lake Billy Chinook, is comprised of Deschutes, Metolius and Crook river “arms.”
Built between 1957 and 1964, Pelton-Round Butte blocked up and downstream migrations for native salmon and steelhead. The dams were originally constructed with both upstream and downstream fish passage facilities. However, once the dams were built, unforeseen changes in the river currents and water temperature made it impossible for the juvenile fish to find the downstream pipeline.
The underwater selective water temperature withdrawal tower and fish collection facility 700 feet upstream from Round Butte dam is designed to draw warmer water off the surface and cooler water from the bottom of the reservoir, depending on the season, and modify the reservoir currents to better draw fish into the collection facility.
The fry produced for the reintroduction program are transported from the Round Butte Hatchery in Madras in tanker trucks equipped with oxygenated and aerated water. Approximately 3,000 fry each are placed in a mesh bag and each bag is suspended from a cross bar inside the tank truck.
The fish are hauled to predetermined locations and either placed in the stream directly from the transport truck or transferred to large plastic bags containing chilled water and pure oxygen.
That’s where the community support comes in handy. In many cases volunteers help pack the fish bags down canyon trails to river reaches that are inaccessible to vehicles. Reaches are assigned to teams of 2-6 people per reach with each team responsible for 2-4 bags of fry.
Fry are then transferred from the bags into five gallon buckets partially filled with stream water to help them acclimate to the stream water chemistry; another method is to open the bag just prior to release and add stream water to the bag. The fish that are released directly from the mesh bags are placed in a five-gallon bucket containing half tank water and half stream water to acclimate them.
Fry were dispersed throughout specific stream reaches and released into pools and backwater habitats by personnel with five gallon buckets or directly from the bags.
The helping hand comes from a variety of sources, including representatives of federal agencies, watershed councils, conservation groups, landowners and others.