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Thousands of pink salmon stuck behind White River

By Susan Gordon
Buckley, Washington (AP) 9-07

The fish were so thick in the rivers you could walk across on their backs. The old-timers’ oft-repeated tale sounds like a phenomenon never to be witnessed again.

Yet a visit recently to the White River near Buckley brings the image to mind. Thousands of pink salmon have backed up behind Puget Sound Energy’s old wooden diversion dam, eager to head upstream and reproduce.

The presence of a huge number of pinks has renewed a protracted dispute among the agencies and interests that control the river’s flow and the fish that inhabit it.

“They’ve got a fixed amount of energy, and they’re just wasting it beating themselves against the dam,” said fish biologist Russ Ladley, the Puyallup Tribe’s resource protection manager.

He and other tribal biologists predict a massive salmon die-off if something isn’t done to allow the pinks to migrate upriver. A state fish biologist familiar with the scenario isn’t so sure.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is obligated to move the fish past its flood-control facility farther upstream, is ready to authorize an intervention.

And a spokesman for Puget Sound Energy, which owns the dam, says the utility’s willing to step in and attempt a fix if they get the Corps’ OK and it’s safe to send workers into the river to do it.

Between 30,000 and 60,000 pinks are expected to head up the White River this season, said fish biologist Blake Smith, who also works for the Puyallups.

Pinks, also called humpbacks or humpies, are only 2 years old when they return to the rivers to spawn and die. They are the smallest and most numerous salmon species, the kind grandad might have grown up eating out of a can.

Those who have studied the pinks’ life history say they commonly colonize new habitats. And although pinks are relative newcomers to the White River, a run two years ago was similar in size, Smith said.

In the river near Buckley, the fins of the pinks appear dark against the gray of the river, which picks up its color from the runoff of glaciers on Mount Rainier. As the fish seek passage through the roiling current, they are confronted by the dam.

Erected starting in 1911, the dam is a vestige of the utility’s White River hydropower generator, which shut down in 2004. The Corps now has a cooperative agreement with the utility to maintain the structure. But flooding in November 2006 damaged it, so the dam no longer blocks the rushing river.

Even so, fish can’t get past without human intervention. Ordinarily, enough water would flow past the dam to attract fish to an adjacent ladder, where Corps workers trap the fish and truck them upstream. But it’s late August, typically the river’s driest month, and most of the water left in the river hurdles over the broken dam rather than rushing through the fish ladder.

Although hundreds of pinks have found their way up the ladder, the bulk of the run appears distracted by the force of the river near the dam.

“Amazing,” said Russ Rodrigues, assistant supervisor of the Muckleshoot Tribe’s hatchery, across the river from the trap and near where most of the fish were staging. “There’s probably 500 to 700 right there, waiting to get upstream,” he said.

Hundreds have tried to get upriver through a side channel that runs through the hatchery, Rodrigues said. While he and Smith watched, some of the pinks jumped on the edge of the wooden dam.

“They make it to the base, but you don’t see them going up and over. They’re lost. They should be going to the fish ladder,” Smith said.

The Corps trucks 250 fish at a time to a spot about five miles above its flood-control structure, the Mud Mountain Dam outside of Enumclaw. From there, fish head toward spawning grounds in Huckleberry Creek, the Greenwater and Clearwater rivers, and the White’s upper reaches, Smith said.

Ladley and Smith said the Corps has failed the fish.

“They knew months ago they would have a low flow and the trap is not working very effectively,” Smith said.

Jeff Dillon, a Corps fish biologist and environmental coordinator for Mud Mountain Dam, is unwilling to shoulder the blame and points the finger instead at tribal and state fish managers who he said were unwilling to make necessary repairs earlier in the year.

“The tribe chose to postpone the repairs until summer” after other juvenile fish had migrated downstream, he said.

Officials expected the river’s flow would drop low enough for utility crews to work safely on the Buckley dam. Unlike previous years, the Corps can’t hold the river back at Mud Mountain Dam because of maintenance there, Dillon said.

Dillon said Corps officials last week asked Puget Sound Energy to repair the Buckley dam as soon as its workers are able. The Corps will pay whatever it costs, officials said.

“They’re going to do what they can,” Dillon said of the utility. “We have to get something done now to get the fish into the trap and move them upstream. If we can do something now to improve collection ability, we should be doing it,” Dillon said.

Roger Thompson, a Puget Sound Energy spokesman, said that the company’s crews had not received final approval from Corps officials but are readying equipment.

The problem is that the river is still running too high to allow workers to safely traverse the dam.

“They’re trying to wait until the time is right,” Thompson said. “The dam was damaged in November. It’s been a long wait until now to get direction on this.”

Weather has compounded the problem, said Gary Sprague, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist. “Our summer rains have delayed our plans to repair the dam,” he said. “There is an effort under way to do it. We just need a lot of cooperation from nature.”

As for the pinks, Sprague dismissed the prospect of a die-off. The river is running relatively high for August, which means the water is oxygenated and cool, good for fish. And pinks usually don’t do much spawning until later in September, he said.

“They can hold in the river for a while,” Sprague said.

Information from: The News Tribune,