TRI-CITIES—The region's largest healthy wild fall chinook salmon population may benefit from two new proposals that promise clean and consistent water for the future.
The fish are in the upper Columbia River's Hanford Reach, which runs through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Hanford Site north of the Tri-Cities in southeast Washington. Hanford Reach salmon have remained strong because their freshwater habitat within DOE property has been protected from development.
But their habitat has been threatened by proposals to develop land along the river's north shoreline, and fish productivity has been limited by water fluctuations from upstream hydroelectricity generation.
The newest proposal that could help the salmon was DOE's recently announced plan to have the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service manage the Wahluke Slope lands adjacent to the Hanford Reach as a wildlife refuge. Such a designation would protect nearly 90,000 acres from potentially harmful land uses. For example, poor irrigation practices can increase land sloughing into the river, especially in the White Bluffs area where the greatest concentrations of fall chinook and other fish need clean water to spawn.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has managed 67,000 acres of the Wahluke Slope lands as a wildlife area since 1971 for fishing access, hunting, and wildlife watching, and all those uses would be maintained and enhanced under the new proposal.
Just as important was a new salmon protection plan struck last month between regional fish managers and federal and private Public Utility Districts (PUD) of the mid- Columbia River hydrosystem. The interim one-year plan to reduce water fluctuations from hydroelectric production sets the stage for a permanent plan that -- depending on monitored results -- might save up to 4-1/2 million young chinook salmon annually, or about 90 percent of current losses.
"This is really an historic agreement," said WDFW director Jeff Koenings. "We've reached an interim agreement that provides further habitat protection for one of the last fully functioning ecosystems on the Columbia River. It also holds the promise for not only ongoing, but permanent protection."
Although the Hanford Reach is the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River and remains one of most productive salmon producing habitats, it is subject to flow manipulation from many upstream dams, from Priest Rapids to Canada. Flows fluctuate seasonally, daily and hourly due to changes in hydroelectricity generation.
WDFW regional fish program manager Keith Wolf of Yakima explained that since the now 10-year-old Vernita Bar Settlement, a minimum flow has been maintained for the Hanford Reach during fall chinook spawning and incubation to protect eggs and developing fish. But after the young fish come out of the spawning gravel, flows fluctuate again and many fish die. The agreement reached last month moderates flow fluctuations for the three to four months that young salmon reside in the Hanford Reach before they head to the ocean.
"It's a logical extension of the Vernita Bar Settlement's intent," said Wolf, who helped negotiate the plan with Columbia River power managers, Columbia River Treaty Tribes, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and members of the Northwest Power Planning Council staff. The new agreement includes intensive monitoring, already underway, to provide additional data needed to develop a long-term settlement with power producers by January of 2000.
The "Upriver Brights," as the Hanford Reach fall chinook salmon are known, are of tremendous importance because they are the primary contributor to ocean and freshwater sport and commercial fisheries and to in-river tribal fisheries. In the era of listed salmon under the federal Endangered Species Act, having a large healthy stock of chinook for harvest can serve to reduce harvest pressure on weaker stocks.
PHOTO OPPORTUNITY: Grant Count PUD and WDFW biologists are working out on the water in the Hanford Reach seven days a week, collecting and handling fish to evaluate the effects of the hydroelectric operation changes. News media are welcome to join them to photograph and videotape salmon; arrangements should be made through Keith Wolf at WDFW's Yakima office, 509-457-9330.