Construction began Jan. 10 on a new hatchery east of Milton-Freewater, Ore., that's expected to double the number of spring Chinook smolts released into the South Fork Walla Walla and Touchet rivers to 500,000 releases annually.

Funded by the Bonneville Power Administration, the $20 million Walla Walla River Fish Hatchery is being built by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation after 30 years of planning and evaluation. The hatchery should be completed by the spring of 2021, and adult salmon from the hatchery should begin returning to the basin by 2026.

Spring Chinook were extirpated from the Walla Walla Basin in the early to mid-1900s. The goal of the hatchery program is to augment fish populations for harvest and establish a naturally spawning spring Chinook population in the basin.

"We are really pleased that this project is moving forward," Kat Brigham, chairwoman of the Umatilla Tribes said in a news release. "We expect the facility to produce more fish for the environment, our people and the region."

The hatchery is funded through the Columbia Basin Fish Accords and includes egg incubation and full juvenile rearing facilities, enabling the Umatilla Tribes to use river water at the hatchery to help them imprint on the streams where they are released and may later return.

Currently, about 250,000 spring Chinook smolts are incubated and raised offsite before they are released into the South Fork Walla Walla River. The Umatilla Tribe plans to raise twice as many smolts and release the majority into the South Fork Walla Walla River, and about 20 percent in the nearby Touchet River.

Their goal is to see about 5,000 adult salmon return each year to the Walla Walla Basin.

In addition to funding the hatchery, BPA and its partners have invested about $40 million in fish habitat projects that include passage improvements, increased instream flows, flood plain restoration and initial artificial propagation actions.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council reported that the new hatchery is the first to be operated fully by the Umatilla Tribe.

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.