Grand Coulee Dam

Grand Coulee Dam.

With the first phase of studies and evaluations complete, the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT) says it's time to investigate and test interim fish passage at Grand Coulee, Chief Joseph and three dams on the Spokane River, and to move ahead with large-scale survival studies on the feasibility of reintroducing salmon in the upper Columbia River.

The second phase of UCUT's three-part plan to bring salmon back to the upper Columbia's blocked areas is expected to cost roughly $100 million over the next 20 years, although that could change as studies advance, speakers at a Lake Roosevelt Forum webinar said May 20.

"I think everybody thinks we should be considering this process; we should be looking at reintroduction and would support the idea, the concept of reintroduction into the blocked area," Thomas Biladeau, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's habitat restoration biologist and technical lead, said. "Funding, however, is a big issue that we're going to have going forward, and will be a continual issue and it's something that certainly needs to be addressed."

The half-day virtual event on upper Columbia salmon reintroduction included presentations by fisheries scientists from the Spokane, Colville and Coeur d'Alene tribes, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, along with a leadership panel discussion with representatives from tribes, WDFW, Stevens County and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

It provided the first glimpse of what UCUT is planning in its second phase of reintroduction, and a clear message that it's time to take that next step. "Phase 2 is really where the rubber meets the road, or maybe where the paddle hits the water," Biladeau said, adding, "The Phase 1 work that the UCUT tribes have done affirms we should be moving into Phase 2."

He said the initial steps will involve choosing the appropriate hatchery stocks and a facility or facilities to raise and release more than 100,000 juvenile sockeye and Chinook salmon annually. Those numbers are needed to conduct statistically sound studies, he said.

Biladeau said UCUT has been talking to NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NWPCC about moving to the next phase.

He said the first studies will include survival assessments for both juvenile and adult salmon, along with an interim trap-and-haul program to move returning adults back into the blocked area while permanent passage options are investigated. Phase 1 studies showed that juveniles released in the Spokane River can make it past three tributary dams and the large two main-stem dams. Initial Phase 2 studies will use both PIT-tagged fish and acoustic telemetry to determine the passage routes by juveniles, including their passage through turbines.

None of the dams have adult or juvenile passage facilities, but the many options for those will also be explored in the second phase.

Tribal officials said they are not proposing operational changes at any of the Columbia Basin hydroelectric projects.

"We're not trying to change dam operations, and we haven't really pushed it in the Columbia River Treaty because we're trying to build something that's scientifically valid, but also that has the least amount of objections to it," John Sirois, UCUT's committee coordinator, said. "As we go forward, we really want, and are looking for, sound good partners that want to help improve some of these studies that we're undertaking."

Biladeau said the Phase 2 implementation plan is in the last stages of being finalized, and should be available to the public this summer.

The studies in Phase 1—which were reviewed by the Independent Scientific Advisory Board—found significant suitable habitat above Chief Joseph Dam for spring, summer and fall Chinook, and sockeye salmon. That includes habitat in tributaries suitable for more than 13,000 spring, summer or fall Chinook, and between 34,000 and 1 million sockeye.

Rufus Woods Reservoir also has potential for between 600 and 20,000 summer or fall Chinook, and a stretch of the Columbia River from Kettle Falls to the U.S.-Canada border has potential habitat for 6,000 to 33,000 summer or fall Chinook.

Lake Roosevelt—the reservoir above Grand Coulee Dam—could rear between 12 million and 48.5 million sockeye, initial habitat assessments found.

The first phase showed successful spawning and successful downstream passage by Chinook is possible, tribal scientists reported.

Conor Giorgi, anadromous program manager for the Spokane Tribe of Indian's Department of Natural Resources, noted that in 2019, a PIT-tagged summer Chinook that had been released in the Spokane River as a juvenile returned to the Columbia River and swam past nine main-stem dams to reach the fish ladder at Chief Joseph Hatchery—which is as close as the fish could get to the river where it was released. On the way downstream, the juvenile salmon made it past five upper Columbia River dams that have no juvenile fish passage.

Last year, three more Chinook adults that had been released in the Spokane River returned to the Columbia River. One was sampled by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Two others crossed Bonneville and John Day dams before they were presumably caught by anglers, Giorgi said. One was later identified through its tag by a Nez Perce Tribe fish processor and returned to the Spokane Tribe to be preserved along with its sibling, which had been mounted the previous year.

"Needless to say, these cultural and educational releases are significant and meaningful," Giorgi said. "They're also demonstrations of the feasibility of returning Chinook to the blocked area. They provide broader benefits—they provide contributions to downstream fisheries; provide opportunities for local harvest. They contribute to the ecosystem and the restoration of cultural practices. They give us a lot of hope for what's to come, so let's enjoy today for what it is: a return of something that's at the very center of our existence."

One of the last studies in Phase 1 looked at the spawning capacity for summer and fall Chinook in the main-stem Columbia and found significant habitat in the 47 miles of river above Kettle Falls. Scientists developed a model for that study based on the slope of the bed, size of substrate, water velocity and other factors to figure out the amount of suitable spawning habitat.

Brian Bellgraph, a fisheries scientist with PNNL and lead scientist in the study, told Clearing Up the lab's computational powers were needed to analyze the information in the model. He said PNNL has been helping UCUT for the past seven years with some of the first phase studies.

"We were really surprised by the amount of suitable habitat in that reach," he said, adding that even more suitable main-stem habitat will likely be discovered across the border in Canada. Getting access to that amount of spawning habitat could become more important to salmon runs as rivers become warmer from climate change.

Bellgraph said PNNL also anticipates being involved with studies in the second phase, which will further assess reintroduction potential above Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams.

"The information we've been able to glean from these cultural and educational releases is helpful for understanding things like sample size, and initial behavioral observations, but we don't have near the statistical rigor we would need to say that we can address any kinds of questions that we had in Phase 2," said Casey Baldwin, research scientist for the Colville Tribes Fish and Wildlife Department.

"Certainly, it's very encouraging to see things like a low fallback rate and a high conversion rate from release to spawning," he added. "And then the juvenile release—the fact that any out of 750 PIT-tagged juveniles were detected anywhere downstream to me was surprising."

Biladeau offered many more details about what research UCUT is preparing for in Phase 2. He said in one of the first studies, UCUT is partnering with the U.S. Geological Survey to use acoustic telemetry tracking of juvenile Chinook salmon to determine their passage routes and survival as they pass hydroelectric dams in the blocked area. That will include how the fish get past Nine Mile, Long Lake and Little Falls dams on the Spokane River owned by Avista, and through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Grand Coulee Dam and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Chief Joseph Dam. He said they also hope to determine reach survival through the blocked area.

UCUT is also interested in expanding the survival and passage studies to sockeye salmon, he said.

Biladeau said another step in the second phase will be to consider interim passage facilities for juvenile fish. He said power generation is a major concern, since Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams produce more electricity than other dams in the Federal Columbia River Power System combined, so scientists will be looking at systems to effectively collect juveniles and have appropriate survival rates without impacting generation.

UCUT Executive Director DR Michel said the tribes commissioned an economic evaluation of the entire Columbia River basin to determine what needs to happen to manage the resources sustainably. That study looked at the economics a little differently, he said. Michel said that from an economic standpoint, dams are most valuable on their first day, and then begin to deteriorate and cost more to maintain. But river restorations—such as rebuilding a floodplain—are least valuable on their first day, and start to become more productive every day after that, he said.

“We understand those economics, and we’re simply trying to swing that pendulum more back toward the center, where it doesn’t have to be either or,” he said.

Michel said the tribes see reintroduction as a benefit to all people, and will continue to work towards reintroduction and a functioning ecosystem while maintaining some of the cheapest power rates in the region.

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K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.