“I’ve been told that the significance to the tribe of welcoming chinook salmon back into the Walla Walla River Basin is like ‘bringing home family members who have been gone for a long, long time,’” said Scott Armentrout, the Bonneville Power Administration’s executive vice president for Environment, Fish and Wildlife.
The CTUIR’s long-term goal is to re-establish a self-sustaining, naturally spawning population of spring chinook in the South Fork Walla Walla River. Located on the South Fork Walla Walla River about 9 miles east of Milton-Freewater, Oregon, the 33,000 square foot Walla Walla Spring Chinook Hatchery now supports full egg incubation and juvenile rearing capabilities, and has three new homes for hatchery workers. BPA funded construction of the incubation and rearing infrastructure, which was built next to existing adult holding and spawning facilities. The agency will also provide the annual operation and maintenance costs for the entire facility as part of its mitigation responsibilities.
The hatchery is part of BPA’s Fish and Wildlife Program, which the agency began 40 years ago to fulfill mandates established by Congress in the 1980 Northwest Power Act. The program funds hundreds of projects each year that are implemented by tribes and other partners. Hatcheries, like the Walla Walla facility, are operated for species protection and population conservation. The majority of facilities in the Columbia Basin are operated to mitigate for the construction and operation of the federal hydropower system.
The newly upgraded hatchery will bring thousands more spring chinook salmon back to the area, providing the potential for fisheries in the mainstem Columbia River and Walla Walla Basin. The hatchery will play an important role in producing fish for tribal ceremonies and subsistence. It is the first hatchery fully owned and operated by CTUIR.
“This project is a critical component in the overall Walla Walla Basin water and fish restoration program with anticipated benefits for both Indian and non-Indian people,” said Gary James, CTUIR fisheries program manager. “The Tribe operates many hatchery satellite adult collection and juvenile acclimation stations in northeast Oregon, and we are looking forward to operating our first full hatchery facility.”
CTUIR plans to release up to half-a-million smolts into the river system each year beginning next spring. The hatchery received 170,000 juvenile spring chinook on July 19, jump-starting the onsite rearing capability for the Walla Walla River Basin. The first adults of the year were spawned at the hatchery Aug. 17, and juveniles developed from those eggs will be released in spring 2023. Within the next few years, fish spawned, reared and released from the hatchery will find their way to the sea and then return to the basin as adult chinook salmon.
The vision for the hatchery was born more than 30 years ago when tribal leaders were seeking a suitable location and saw that the water at the site is ideal for raising spring chinook salmon.
BPA committed to fund the hatchery in the Columbia Basin Fish Accords. Signed in 2008, the Accords pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for projects, such as building and operating hatcheries, which improve conditions for Columbia Basin fish and strengthen BPA’s partnerships in the region.
“The Walla Walla hatchery clearly demonstrates the progress we can make for fish when we work together,” said Crystal Ball, director of BPA’s Fish and Wildlife Program. “Our partnerships with the tribes are critical to helping Bonneville meet its mitigation responsibilities and support the region’s goals for fish and wildlife.”
The project did have some challenges, including a historic 500-year flood and a global pandemic. BPA and CTUIR worked together to overcome those challenges and open a hatchery that will enhance and sustain the natural resources and quality of life in the Northwest.
“This hatchery is a tremendous success story about our partnerships and investments, and it is a great example of how using the best available science and data provides the best outcomes,” said Armentrout. “We used sound science to improve habitat so the fish would have a place to grow, thrive and eventually return to spawn naturally.”
Armentrout said that in the coming years the agency and tribes will continue to rely on science, particularly data gathered through BPA-funded research, monitoring and evaluation, to focus on what works and to make course corrections as appropriate.
The CTUIR will use Walla Walla River water to incubate and rear young salmon before releasing them, helping the fish to imprint on their natal stream, potentially increasing their survivability and the ability to come back to their natal waters. The Tribe envisions a yearly goal of 5,000 adult chinook salmon originating from the hatchery to return to the river.