A bumper return of sockeye salmon to the upper Columbia River region has provided a huge infusion into the Yakama Nation’s ongoing effort to reintroduce the sleek fish to central Washington’s Yakima River basin.
The program launched in 2009 has focused on Lake Cle Elum. The lake is the past home for rearing sockeye and the staging ground for spawners ready to launch into tributaries.
But the dam built on the Cle Elum River in 1933 to raise the lake to provide power and other benefits blocked fish passage to and from the lake. The Cle Elum River is a tributary to the Yakima River, which feeds into the Columbia River
Called “kálux” by the Yakama Nation for their shimmering blue backs, adult sockeye destined for the Okanogan and Wenatchee rivers are collected as they pass through the mid-Columbia’s Priest Rapids Dam, transported by truck and released in the lake.
The Yakama Nation developed an agreement with Grant County Public Utility District to use its Priest Rapids Dam off-ladder adult fish trap to collect sockeye for the reintroduction effort.
The vast majority of the sockeye passing Priest Rapids, an estimated 90 percent, are headed for the Okanogan River drainage and Osoyoos Lake, which straddles the Washington-British Columbia border on the Okanogan-Okanagan River.
Approximately 90 percent of those Okanogan fish are naturally produced. A portion of the upper Columbia sockeye originate in central Washington’s Wenatchee River basin.
The program started with the capture and release of about 1,000 sockeye in 2009. Their offspring, an estimated 80,000 strong, emerged from the lake in 2011. And those that survive to adulthood are expected to return from the Pacific Ocean in 2013.
The juvenile fish escape downriver via a temporary passage device at the dam – a wooden flume in the spillway. Passage success is dependent on river conditions. High spill years such as this year are beneficial under the current passage scenario. Juvenile emergence is monitored at Roza Dam on the Yakima and a juvenile trap near Prosser, Wash.
The releases have gradually increased to 2,500 spawners in 2010 and then 4,500 last year, thanks to what have been a succession of strong sockeye returns.
The year’s final trapping and truck transportation effort was scheduled for Thursday, at which point slightly more than 10,000 sockeye will have been released into Cle Elum Lake, according to Brian Saluskin, fish passage biologist with the Yakama Nation Fisheries.
“That’s the top end of the scale” in the agreement struck between the tribe and PUD, Saluskin said.
The high collection numbers have been enabled by what is a modern day record numbers of sockeye returning to the Columbia River. The sockeye count at Bonneville Dam through Wednesday was 504,276, with a tally that day of 3,921. The previous high count for the entire season was 386,525 in 2010.
The agreement allows for the Yakama Nation to trap and transport up to 3 percent of any year’s run.
Bonneville, at river mile 146, is the first dam the fish encounter in the Columbia system. Priest Rapids, at river mile 397, is the fifth dam in the system. Fish on their way to Osoyoos must clear nine dams. The Yakima pours into the Columbia downstream of Priest Rapids.
“We are at an opportune time to restore wild sockeye fish into areas they once flourished,” said Virgil Lewis, chairman of the Yakama Nation’s Fish and Wildlife Committee. “With one hundred years of no sockeye in the Yakima River, our reintroduction plan is to collect, transport, and release sockeye to let them naturally spawn.”
Lake Cle Elum and three other small lakes fed by the Yakima River historically produced an estimated run of 200,000 sockeye each year. The run was destroyed when dam development blocked adult salmon access to the lakes.
“With recent increases to Upper Columbia sockeye runs this is a good time to re-seed populations where this fish once existed,” said Dave Fast, research manager with Yakama Nation Fisheries.
The releases and spawning monitoring are part of a cooperative investigation involving the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Yakama Nation, Washington, other federal agencies and others to study the feasibility of providing fish passage at the five large storage dams of the Bureau's Yakima irrigation project. Construction of the dams began in 1910. The dam blocking the Cle Elum River, which is a tributary to the Yakima River and then the Columbia River, was built in 1933.
Four of the five reservoirs -- Bumping, Kachess, Keechelus and Cle Elum – were originally natural lakes and historically supported tribal fisheries for sockeye salmon and other anadromous and resident fish. Rimrock Lake above Tieton Dam is the exception in that it was not a lake prior to the dam's construction. Cle Elem was chosen as the first target for reintroduction.
“We considered Cle Elum the toughest fix” because of passage issues, Saluskin said. “But it has the most potential” because of its available prime spawning habitat.
Even earlier timber crib dams, initially constructed to enlarge the four existing natural glacial lake, blocked fish passage to tributaries upstream from the dams and contributed to the eventual extirpation of the sockeye salmon runs in the Yakima River basin by the early 20th century.
“This is multi-year wild fish restoration that will eventually result in a self-sustaining sockeye population that benefits all the people of the Yakima River,” Saluskin said.
The Bureau, which operates the dams, in August signed off on an environmental impact statement that lines out a plan to provide fish passage to historic habitat and restore biodiversity to enhance the natural production of salmon and lamprey in the upper Cle Elum subbasin. Cle Elum Dam located on the Cle Elum River about 8 miles northwest of Cle Elum, Wash., was built without fish passage facilities.
Fish expected to benefit include sockeye, coho and spring chinook salmon, and Pacific lamprey. The project also would benefit the Upper Middle Columbia River steelhead and bull trout, two species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The EIS preferred option is described as the “Right Bank Juvenile Passage with Right Bank Adult Passage without Barrier Dam.” More information can be found at:
The preferred alternative meets the project's purpose and need for fish passage in the Yakima basin in the most environmentally sensitive manner and completes the environmental compliance for this project, the Bureau says.
The preferred alternative includes building downstream passage facilities for juvenile fish to pass through a multilevel gated intake structure and through a conduit on the right abutment of the Cle Elum Dam. A trap-and-haul facility for returning spawners is also included in the alternative.