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600 Capitol Way North, Olympia, WA 98501-1091

This document is provided for archival purposes only.
Archived documents do not reflect current WDFW regulations or policy and may contain factual inaccuracies.

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August 21, 2001
Contact: Craig Bartlett, Department of Fish and Wildlife, (360) 902-2259
Mary Getchell, Department of Ecology, 360-407-6157; 360-534-8590 (pager)

Drought update - Salmon fry deaths skyrocket

OLYMPIA – Following is the Department of Ecology's (Ecology) weekly report about the status of drought conditions in Washington, assistance being provided by state agencies, and what citizens can do to conserve and share water.

Low flows result in fish kills at Hanford Reach:

At least 1.6 million wild chinook salmon fry died last spring after being stranded in the gravel by low-water conditions along a 17-mile stretch of the Columbia River, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) reports.

That estimate of fry mortality in a section of the river downstream from Priest Rapids Dam is about 16 times greater than in the previous two years, said Rod Woodin, WDFW Columbia River policy coordinator.

"Drought, together with fluctuations in water levels caused by dam operations, took a heavy toll on emerging mid-Columbia fall chinook salmon fry this year," said Woodin. "How those losses will be reflected in adult returns three and four years from now remains to be seen."

Woodin said low-water conditions caused by this year's drought amplified the effect of fluctuations in water levels resulting from dam operations.

"Actually, fluctuations in water levels from dam operations were much less than in previous years," Woodin said. "The problem is that any variation during a low-water year dewaters a much greater area than when the river is at a normal level."

Since 1999, estimates of fry mortality on 17 miles of the Columbia River below Priest Rapids Dam have been an integral part of the Hanford Reach Juvenile Fall Chinook Protection Program, an inter-jurisdictional flow-management and monitoring effort involving WDFW, federal natural resource agencies, area treaty tribes and local dam operators.

As in the past two years, this year's monitoring effort was conducted in spring when emerging salmon fry are most susceptible to fluctuations in water levels. This year, technicians walked the riverbanks between April 1 and June 10 to locate stranded fish.

When water levels drop, they can find thousands of fry left high and dry along the riverbank or stranded in shallow pools where the water temperature often reaches lethal levels, said Paul Hoffarth, WDFW's lead biologist on the project.

"The monitoring crews try to salvage as many of them as they can, but that usually amounts to a small fraction of what's there," Hoffarth said.

Hoffarth noted that the loss of 1.6 million fry in the monitored area represents about 7 percent of the year's total estimated fall chinook fry production. But that may account for only a small portion of the fry mortalities, he said.

"These estimates do not account for fry that die elsewhere in the 51-mile Hanford Reach or further down river," Hoffarth said. "This is clearly a tough year for juvenile fall chinook on the mid-Columbia River."

The Hanford Reach supports the largest wild fall chinook population in the main stem Columbia River and is a primary contributor to sport, commercial and tribal fisheries.

Drought conditions

Soaring August temperatures combined with below normal precipitation have exacerbated extremely dry conditions throughout the state. In Central Washington precipitation is just 3 percent of average for the month, and only 75 percent for the year.

"The effects of these conditions are dramatic, particularly on the east-side of the Cascades where tinder-dry conditions are contributing to lightening-sparked fires throughout the region," said Doug McChesney, drought coordinator for Ecology.

Although significant rains are predicted to fall across the state this week, the event won't help most streams, which are fed by groundwater this time of year. "We're not likely to see measurable improvements in these streams until early fall," McChesney said.

For the first time in many years, Ecology told some 150 water-right holders on the Little Spokane River to stop withdrawing water because there is so little water in the river.

Record low flows are being set almost daily on one or more rivers in Washington. Citizens may obtain real-time information about river flows in their area by going to the U.S. Geological Survey Web site at

Conservation tips for this week

In the bathroom: