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Extended Fish Ladders, Trap/Haul: ESA-Listed Spring Chinook Moving Upstream Of Cracked Wanapum Dam
Posted on Friday, April 18, 2014 (PST)

The reconfigured left bank fish ladder at central Washington’s Wanapum Dam was watered up Tuesday and, right on call, 10 spring chinook salmon and 46 steelhead climbed the steps and vanished up the Columbia River in search of spawning areas and/or the hatchery of their birth.


Not completely vanished, but considerably eased, were anxieties about whether or not spawning salmon and steelhead would be able to make their way upriver past Wanapum, where passage as of late February became impossible when water levels upstream were forced downward.


Since then the dam’s operators, in collaboration with a host of interested parties developed an emergency plan for getting fish past the dam until such time as a cracked Wanapum spillway pier can be repaired and the dam’s reservoir is raised back to normal levels.


“It was the first day of what I call the new world,” said Jeff Korth, regional fish manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.


After events this week Korth said he was “very optimistic” that spawning runs this spring-into-fall season can proceed largely unimpeded.


As of mid-afternoon Wednesday, which was the second day of operations at Wanapum’s remodeled left bank fish ladder, a total of 31 spring chinook and 102 steelhead had successfully climbed up and over into the reservoir above.


“Initial results reveal that modifications to Wanapum and Rock Island dam’s fish ladders are allowing safe passage to upstream migrating adult salmon and steelhead,” according to a joint press release from the two public utility districts that own the dams. “Direct observation studies demonstrate salmon successfully navigating the modified ladder and passing upstream.


The fish are the first of an anticipated 15,000 spring chinook expected to make their way up the Columbia River to spawning habitat. Nearly 4,000 of those spring chinook are expected to be wild, naturally spawning fish, and the entire run is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.


Thirty-six miles upstream from Wanapum, three steelhead and eight whitefish passed over Rock Island Dam ladders. The first official fish counts began this week at Rock Island.


Because of Wanapum’s lowered pool elevation, work has been done to extend Rock Island’s ladders to assure access for migrating fish. Wanapum, and Priest Rapids downstream on the mid-Columbia, are owned by Grant County PUD. Rock Island is owned by Chelan County PUD.


A structural flaw, a 65-foot-long crack across one of Wanapum’s spillway piers, was noticed Feb. 27 and forced a drawdown of the reservoir behind the dam as a means of reducing stress on the damaged structure.


The lower reservoir level is being maintained while investigators search for causes and potential remedies for the fractured facility, which causes a variety of problems, not the least of which is incapacitating the hydro project’s fish ladders, which provide passage for salmon and steelhead, lamprey, bull trout and other species.


As construction workers raced against the clock to make fish ladders at Wanapum Dam operational at the lowered water level, state fishery managers were standing ready to implement alternate plans to move spring chinook salmon up the Columbia River.


Upon request from stakeholders and agencies, Grant PUD and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife began a program Tuesday to trap migrating adult spring chinook salmon at Priest Rapids Dam and haul them above Wanapum Dam until the ladder modifications are evaluated under working conditions.


A total of three steelhead were trapped and hauled around the dam that first day.


“The spring chinook are still just starting to get here,” Korth said.


A total of 474 adult spring chinook had been counted so far this year – most of them over the past week -- at McNary Dam, located about 105 river miles downstream from Priest Rapids.


Grant has been scrambling to modify the fish ladders at Wanapum to make them operational by April 15.


"The stakes are very high, especially given the number of wild spring chinook involved," said Jim Brown, regional WDFW director for north-central Washington. "Grant County PUD is doing a great job, but all of us have a role to play in getting those fish upriver to spawn."


Under the current plan, WDFW will intercept salmon at Priest Rapids Dam and truck most of them around Wanapum Dam, 19 miles upriver. Working in rotation, experienced drivers will haul the salmon in eight tanker trucks, each capable of moving up to 1,500 fish a day.


It is believed that changes to the Rock Island fish ladders, essentially “adding some steps,” will provide access that will be as efficient as before the drawdown, Brown said.


At the same time, about 250 hatchery-reared fish -- identifiable by a clipped adipose fin -- will be fitted with coded and radio tags and released from the Priest Rapids facility to negotiate the newly configured fish ladders at Wanapum Dam.


"The tags will allow us to track those salmon, and determine whether they are able to get over the dam on the reconfigured fish ladders," Brown said. "That will tell us when it's safe to suspend the trucking operation, and allow the fish to move past Wanapum on their own."


That plan was unanimously approved by the Priest Rapids Coordinating Committee, a multi-jurisdictional organization established in 2004 to oversee hydroelectric projects in the mid-Columbia region.


For its part, Grant PUD will continue to refine the dam's fish ladders as needed to facilitate the movement of salmon past Wanapum Dam. Rock Island Dam is 38 miles upriver.


One extension at Rock Island’s right bank ladder was up and running by midweek with a second extension there expected to be completed by today. The right bank ladder is where an estimated 70 percent or more of the spawners pass upstream. At Wanapum 80 percent or more typically pass up through the left bank laddere.


With or without the extensions the Rock Island ladders are now functional because of seasonal high flows. The extensions will be more vital to passage later in the spring-summer season, when flows are lower and the numbers of fish, sockeye and summer and fall chinook salmon in particular, are expected to be much higher.


Chelan PUD has spent an estimated $4.3 million over the past month and a half to have the ladder extensions installed, according to the utility’s Suzanne Hartman.


The Wanapum ladder and related work has cost about $3 million. That total includes money expected to be spent for the trap and haul operation, and for monitoring and evaluation of fish survival and migration behavior up and down through the river system this spring and summer, Grant’s Thomas Stredwick said. Another $666,000 is being spent by Grant for engineering and other work aim at evaluating the spill bay pier and formulating potential repair options. Those costs also include the need to police the bared shoulders of the lowered reservoir, now off limits to the public.


Brown said fishery managers are counting on the success of those measures to move fish upstream, because the trucking option will become less and less viable as larger runs of migrating salmon move into the area.


Starting in June, salmon managers are anticipating a run of up to 80,000 summer chinook, followed by 400,000 sockeye salmon and 300,000 fall chinook salmon.


"We can handle the spring chinook run with tanker trucks if that becomes necessary," Brown said. "But there simply aren't enough trucks, trained personnel, or hours in the day to move the number of salmon we're expecting later in the year."


Brown said WDFW will continue to work closely with members of the Priest Rapids Coordinating Committee to address issues as they arise at Wanapum Dam. That group includes representatives from NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, WDFW, Colville Confederated Tribes, Yakama Nation, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation and Grant PUD staff.


Korth said he keeps running the details of the joint operation through his mind as the spring chinook run draws near.


"We do all of these things -- trapping, tagging and transporting fish -- all the time as part of our jobs," Korth said. "But this time we'll be doing them under very different circumstances."


For additional information, visit: or “Fish Counts” on Chelan PUDs home page


For more information, see:


-- CBB, April 11, 2014, “Wanapum Dam: Tribes Urge Feds To Be ‘Proactive’ In Requiring Monitoring, Evaluation Of Fish Passage”


-- CBB, April 4, 2014, “Fish Passage Fixes At Wanapum Dam To Be Completed April 15; Trap/Truck First Weeks Of Spring Run”


-- CBB, March 14, 2014, “Wanapum Dam Crack: With Spring Chinook On the Way Upstream Fish Passage High Priority”


-- CBB, March 7, 2014, “Crack In Wanapum Dam:Reservoir Drawn Down 26 Feet, Officials Assess Options, Fish Passage Strategies”


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