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Simple fix opens long-blocked fishway
8/8/2014 12:00 AM
A BPA-funded study set the stage for the huge jump in sockeye returns to the Okanagan Basin. The cross-boundary cooperation among U.S. and Canadian tribes, federal governments and public utilities is building on this success.
After years of looking at the boarded-up fishway at Skaha Lake Dam and collectively shaking their heads, last month staff from the Colville Tribes and Okanagan Nation Alliance cut 105 4 x 4 posts and set them into built-in slots in the fishway. They created five step pools, each about two to four feet deep, each about an 8 to 12 inch leap above the last.
Then they removed the existing stop log. Water flowed into the fishway, and salmon that were once limited to rearing in the north basin of Canada’s Lake Osoyoos now had access to Skaha Lake. Okanagan sockeye rearing habitat more than doubled. Cost of the project: around $2,500.
“Frustration removed,” says Colville fish biologist Chris Fisher.
Okanagan sockeye production has exploded since managers started using the Fish Water Management Tool widely in 2004-05 – going from a low of 100,000 wild sockeye smolts leaving Lake Osoyoos in the 1990s to upwards of 9 million in recent years. (See chart. The first adult return from those years was in 2008.)
Developed by the Canadian governments, the Okanagan Nation Alliance and Douglas County PUD, the FWMT uses real-time field data to quickly predict the benefits and the risks of numerous water storage and release options, allowing managers to balance multiple uses and provide fish-friendly flows. Before the FWMT, sockeye redds in the upper Okanagan River were often de-watered in the fall when water was held back to refill upstream reservoirs. In late winter and early spring, heavy water releases to make room for snow melt would often “scour” the eggs out of the redds before the fry could emerge naturally. Studies have demonstrated that the tool has made a huge difference in protecting the sockeye nests (known as redds) and eggs before hatching.
The story of how a fishway – built in the 1950s and immediately boarded up again – was finally re-opened just this year, involves a study and implementation plan that BPA funded in the early part of this century that helped convince biologists that it was the right thing to do, and years of building trust and common goals between utilities and tribes in the United States and Canada.
Skaha Lake Dam was part of a Canadian flood control and irrigation project that also includes McIntyre Dam downstream at the outlet of Vaseux Lake and Okanagan Lake Dam upstream at the outlet of Okanagan Lake.
Both Skaha Lake and Okanagan Lake are prized for their native kokanee. They grow to 10 pounds and supply a lively recreational and commercial fishery. Fish managers were worried about sockeye getting into the lakes, where they believed the fish could compete with the kokanee and native trout for food and habitat, and potentially spread disease. They also wanted to keep non-native warm-water species from getting into the upper reaches of the Okanagan River. So, soon after the dams were built, they closed off passage into both of those lakes.
As the Colville Tribes watched sockeye runs in the United States dwindle in the 1990s, though, they wondered if the limited rearing area in Canadian lakes wasn’t part of the problem. (See sidebar for another very successful project that’s addressing some of the other limiting factors for this species.) The mid-Columbia public utility districts of Douglas, Chelan and Grant counties, for their part, had mitigation responsibilities for the sockeye that migrated past their dams. They began to form alliances with the Okanagan First Nations and the Canadian governmental entities, including the Department of Fish and Oceans. A 12-year plan started to take shape.
In 2000, they approached BPA with a request to fund a risk assessment of their proposal to open up access to Skaha and Okanagan lakes. BPA agreed to fund a $800,000 three-year study. The study found that there was negligible disease risk to native stocks from providing passage over McIntyre and Okanagan Falls into Skaha Lake. Follow up studies found there was plenty of food in the Lake to support a sockeye population without jeopardizing kokanee populations.
The studies were timely, thorough and scientific, and the findings reassured those that were worried about opening up Skaha Lake. The partners took it stepwise, ensuring buy-in and assessing results at each stage. In the fall of 2009, the fish managers gave the “okay” to modify McIntyre Dam to provide passage, with $1.4 million in mitigation funds from Grant County PUD. Then in 2014, they agreed to activating the fish ladder at Skaha Lake.
It’s likely that the fishway at Okanagan Lake Dam will be a lot less time in the activating, says Fisher. Later this summer, the tribes will put in gravel ramps immediately downriver of the dam where the returning sockeye can spawn. A viewing platform at the dam will attract visitors to see the bright red fish returning. “When people start seeing salmon jumping into those metal dam gates, there will likely be a lot of public support for opening that fishway up, too,” he says.
“In a matter of time, you will see the sockeye population take off,” adds BPA tribal liaison and Colville Tribe member Joe Peone.
It appears that it’s already taken off. The 2014 sockeye return to Bonneville Dam is the largest on record (since 1938). Some of those fish are headed for the Snake River, where a BPA-funded hatchery program has brought the sockeye back from the brink of extinction. They’re also helped by fish passage improvements on the federal hydropower dams that have improved juvenile fish survival to the best seen since pre-dam days.
And in the Okanagan in recent years, Fisher says, the river is teeming red with returning sockeye in late summer and early fall. “You have to see it to believe it,” he says. “It’s phenomenal these fish are so resilient.”
And with the restoration efforts of international resource agencies and the help of public and federal hydro-power operators, it looks like the Okanagan sockeye have a very promising future.
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