Orting hatchery coming back to life as Puyallup Tribe looks on

By Mike Archbold
Orting, Washington (AP) 8-09

Hot weather has turned the mud left from January’s flooding at Voights Creek Hatchery south of Orting into dust.

Still, the fine sediment testifies to the chaos that enveloped the 4-acre hatchery on Jan. 8-9 when Voights Creek surged over its banks.

Floodwaters killed 1.6 million young Chinook salmon destined for the Carbon and Puyallup rivers. Another 620,000 coho salmon eggs were lost.

The flood left mud everywhere, including 3 feet of silt that filled the one-third-of-an-acre cement rearing ponds. Half of the coho fingerlings in the ponds were rescued; winter steelhead fingerlings were released into the flood water in hopes they’d survive.

In the aftermath of the flood, state Fish and Wildlife officials decided to close the 92-year-old hatchery because of the damage it had sustained so much damage.

Then things took a turn for the better.

Despite tough budget times, the Legislature found $200,000 to put the hatchery complex back together. Work is under way and officials hope to have the hatchery operating by early September.

Two large excavators last week finished dredging the creek that flows between the hatchery and busy Highway 162. A new generator is on its way and the water pump from the creek, the hatchery’s lifeline, is being repaired. Orting Mayor Cheryl Temple said closing the hatchery would have been a huge loss for the community.

“The hatchery is almost kind of an icon,” she said.

It is one of 88 state operations, 70 of which, like Voights Creek, produce salmon. Another 18 rear trout and other game fish. A three-person crew operates the hatchery, which has an annual budget of about $288,000.

The hatchery supplies most of the fish for the Carbon River and has become a tourist attraction for visitors and a place for the community to volunteer with the fishery.

“People love it without thinking about it too much,” Temple said.

It’s also an expensive operation to replace. The estimated cost of building a state-of-the-art hatchery in a better location is $16 million, said Ron Warren, the state’s hatchery program manager.


In addition to paying to repair the hatchery, the Legislature funded two studies: one to study the feasibility of building a new hatchery and one to review the last flood and its causes.

Warren said the studies will help drive the discussion of the hatchery’s future with legislators and the Puyallup Tribe, which uses it for coho and Chinook salmon production.

No one disputes the hatchery is a very productive operation for fish from the Puyallup and Carbon rivers. But it has a problem: Given its location, it’s like building a sand castle near the ocean and then having the tide come it, Warren said.

“The hatchery just gets thumped every time,” he said.

Voights Creek itself has problems. High cliffs upstream slough sand and gravel into the creek. Logging there doesn’t help. Floods then carry sediment downstream, where a dam of wood debris can back up flood waters.

Still, Warren said, the department isn’t giving up on Voights Creek yet.

He was manager there in 1989-1995 and still loves the Orting community. He knows the hatchery is the only reason fishermen can line the Carbon River just outside Orting to catch Chinook and coho.

Plus, the one stable element at the hatchery is the dedicated men and women who work there, Warren said.

He gave the order to evacuate the hatchery workers at the height of the flood. It wasn’t something he wanted to do, he said, but the safety of the crew was paramount.

For Jill Phillips, 38, the hatchery also is her home. As hatchery manager, she lives in one of the two houses there. Though water didn’t get into the house, the flood forced her and her son from their home for two days.

Another crew member and his family lived in the second house until they, too, had to be evacuated. Flood water reached the deck and seeped into the living room. The house remains closed and the crewman and his family have moved to another hatchery.

Phillips said more than 20 hatchery workers from elsewhere in the state as well as local volunteers helped clean up the hatchery.

Sherman Davis, 51, of Parkland, has worked at the Voights Creek hatchery seven years and in the hatchery system for 19 years.

“There’s been a flood every year,” he said of his time at Voights Creek, “and January was the worst ... because of the material that came down, the amount of water and the damage.”

The loss of fish was most devastating, he said.

“It’s heartbreaking because you work so hard to get your production going and then three months down the line you lose them to a flood,” Davis said. “It tears at your guts.” And those losses carry forward.

The young Chinook that normally would have returned as adults beginning in 2012 won’t be coming. Sports and tribal fishermen will feel the loss, Phillips said.

The hatchery program also is hurt. The hatchery needs returning adult salmon so workers can collect eggs to raise and release for future runs, she said.

The goal is to have repairs to the hatchery done in time for the return of this year’s adult Chinook spawning in late September.

Eggs will be harvested from the adult fish and barring another flood the hatchery again will fill the rivers with fish.