TACOMA — Salmon haven’t spawned in the upper reaches of the Puyallup River in nearly a century. But that should change this fall, when a new $1 million fish ladder gives them a way to bypass 96-year-old Electron Dam in the foothills of Mount Rainier.
"The fish are beating their heads on the base of the dam right now," said Russ Ladley, resource protection manager for the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.
As he spoke, workers from Natt McDougall Co., a Portland construction company, wove together steel rods to reinforce the 290-foot-long concrete ladder that will open 30 miles of upriver fish habitat.
The ladder dwarfs the dam, 41 miles upriver from Commencement Bay. Considered an engineering marvel when it was built in 1904 by Puget Sound Power Co., the dam still diverts water with a shallow dike of wooden planks. The 22-megawatt generator produces enough electricity to power about 10,000 homes.
The fish-passage project is the most ambitious salmon-restoration project in Washington this year, Ladley said.
The project is a joint effort by the tribe and Puget Sound Energy, which runs the hydropower project. The tribe oversees salmon restoration and the utility pays for it. The effort is also supported by IP Pacific Timberlands, which owns surrounding forests.
"This project demonstrates how we can have electric energy and healthy, productive fish habitat. It doesn’t have to be an either-or situation," said Janet Gaines, Puget Sound Energy’s south generation-services manager.
"It was something I was hoping to see in my lifetime," said Puyallup tribal member Steve Dillon, who manages the tribal hatchery. "It’s going to be a big thrill to see the fish go up that (ladder). I want to see that."
The work started three years ago, when the tribe dug three small, stream-fed rearing ponds upriver. Each spring, the tribe plants about 300,000 chinook and coho smolts in the ponds, trucking most of them from the state’s Voights Creek Hatchery near Orting. The little fish spend several months acclimating in the rearing ponds and then hatchery workers release them into the river.
The goal is to a run that returns to the Puyallup’s upper reaches when it’s time to spawn.
"This is the first wave of return for the 3-year-old chinook," Ladley said of fish waiting to ascend the ladder.
Coho are heading upstream, too. Their downstream run was assisted by another mechanism resulting from the agreement between the tribe and the utility.
To keep power turbines from chopping up the fish, workers installed a trap at the end of the 10-mile-long wooden flume that carries water to the power generator. Workers periodically remove trapped fish, truck them beyond the generator and release them back into the river.
None of this comes cheap.
The fish ladder, the ponds and the trap-and-haul operation cost about $2 million, Gaines said. The utility also pays the tribe $175,000 annually to nurture the new fish runs.
But the biggest cost is loss of power-generating capacity. During low-flow months, between June and November, the utility has agreed not to draw much water into its flume, Gaines said. That means it loses between $250,000 and $1 million a year, depending on water flow and power rates, Gaines said.
In a related effort on IP land below the dam, almost 6 miles of previously inaccessible streams were recently opened to fish. The Pierce County Conservation District got a $145,000 grant from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation to pay half the cost of culvert replacements on the north fork of Ohop Creek and another, unnamed stream that flows into Lake Kapowsin. IP paid the rest.
"We’re trying to restore as much fish habitat as we can and at the same time reducing the cost of culvert installation," said Ron Geisler, an IP district forester.
Over the long term, Ladley expects the salmon to spawn in the small streams and rivers upstream of the dam and, eventually, sustain themselves. At that point, the tribe will quit planting hatchery fish.
He figures it will take at least 10 years.
"The progeny will be considered wild," he said.
"The whole thing depends on how close that brood stock is to the original stock that was above the dam," said fisheries expert Jim Lichatowich of Sequim, whose recent book, "Salmon Without Rivers," analyzes the region’s failure to sustain the fish.
"It may take 30, 40, 50 or 60 years for the animals to adapt their life history to the environment above the dam," he said.
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