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Fish: The issue of chutes and ladders can’t be ignored

By Susan Palmer
Register Guard

Dams are among the worst enemies of imperiled fish, such as some salmon and trout species.

Yet some dam owners and operators have to spend a lot more money than others to mitigate the harm their waterway barriers cause to fish.To win federal relicensing of the Carmen Smith hydroelectric system on the McKenzie River, the Eugene Water & Electric Board in 2008 agreed, among other things, to spend $15 million to build a fish ladder – a specially designed channel – that will let salmon and other fish swim upstream and bypass the dams. EWEB agreed to build the ladder after critics blasted the utility’s initial proposal to collect salmon at the base of the dam system, truck them above the structures, and then release them into the river to continue their upstream journey.

Meanwhile, salmon heading downstream will have a separate passage to swim through, under the relicensing plan.

By contrast, if the Emerald People’s Utility District succeeds in adding energy-producing turbines to flood-control dams at Dorena Lake and Fall Creek, the dams won’t get fish ladders on which fish can head upstream, or any new channels to use heading downstream.

Instead, at Fall Creek, the dam’s owner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will expand its practice of collecting salmon at the dam’s base and trucking them upstream. Salmon heading downstream will continue to use an old chute that has high fish mortality rates.

At Dorena, also owned by the corps, the corps doesn’t do any fish trucking because the waterway is not a traditional salmon-bearing river, a corps official said. The corps won’t be adding any facilities for fish to bypass the dam.

The difference in the treatment of salmon by EWEB and EPUD is based in part on project ownership and the complexities of state and federal oversight.

EWEB owns its dams on the McKenzie, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issues the license that allows the utility to operate them.

By contrast, FERC has no oversight over the corps.

FERC does have oversight when nonfederal entities, such as EPUD, build onto corps dams. FERC’s licensing process includes provision for scrutiny by the state and federal agencies charged with protecting species at risk of extinction, such as the salmon that once were plentiful in the Middle Fork of the Willamette River before the dams were built.

Oregon law requires that any changes to the dams must be reviewed with an eye to improving fish-passage conditions, said Ken Homolka, hydropower program leader for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

EWEB, in relicensing its dams on the McKenzie, went through a lengthy settlement process with 16 government agencies, nonprofit groups and Indian tribes in an effort to address all the environmental concerns that relicensing might raise, said EWEB spokesman Lance Robertson.

To settle the matter, EWEB agreed to build the fish ladder. Currently, EWEB trucks only a small number of bull trout from below the dam to above it, Robertson said. Under the current system, any fish heading downstream must either pass through turbines or spillways, he said.

The proposed Fall Creek and Dorena retrofits are a relatively new twist in the regulation of dams and hydropower projects, and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife hasn’t dealt much with this procedure, Homolka said.

The state agency believes that applying to add hydropower is a “trigger” to make improvements to fish passage, Homolka said.

But it’s not clear in EPUD’s case whose responsibility it might be to spend the big dollars that a fish ladder, for example, might cost.

EPUD told the state it was up to the corps, as dam owner, to deal with fish passage, Homolka said.

EPUD project manager Pam Hewett said FERC determined that fish passage should be addressed by the corps.

But the corps told the state that fish passage improvements have not been authorized or funded by the federal government, Homolka said.

The corps does have to follow federal environmental laws, however, and does have long-range plans to eventually improve conditions for fish at a number of its dams in the Willamette River basin in coming years. Fall Creek is on the list for improvements, but Dorena is not, said corps fisheries biologist Greg Taylor.

A lawsuit by environmental groups against the federal government to improve conditions for fish at the 13 federal dams in the Willamette basin was settled last year.

Under the deal, the corps agreed to make extensive improvements that will cost tens of millions of dollars and take more than 12 years to complete. As part of that, the corps will revamp its system of trapping and hauling salmon, particularly spring chinook, from below the Fall Creek dam to above it, Taylor said.

Meanwhile, Row River, on which the Dorena dam sits, has such low water levels that the flow is not adequate for salmon, and so no upgrades are warranted, he said.

Under the lawsuit agreement, several other corps dams in the Willamette basin must add fish ladders.

– Susan Palmer

Register Guard
Eugene, OR
October 19, 2009

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