Work under way to return salmon to upper North Lewis River

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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Three ponds will be built in the upper North Fork of the Lewis River watershed to acclimate young spring chinook as part of PacifiCorp’s $120 million effort to restore salmon and steelhead upstream of Swift Dam.

Eric Kinne, hatchery reform coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the Vancouver Wildlife League this month the ponds will be built in side channels of the Muddy River and Clear Creek plus near the Crab Creek Bridge, a short distance downstream of Lower Falls, on the main North Fork of the Lewis.

Big-ticket items

Merwin adult collection facility — $50 million, at base of Merwin Dam. Adult fish enter fish ladder into trap basket on a hoist that takes them to holding tank and sort facility. Fish are sorting by species, origin, etc. Once sorted, fish are loaded into special trucks to take them to a hatchery or upstream of the dams for release.

Swift juvenile collection facility — $60 million, at southwest corner of Swift Reservoir immediately adjacent to dam. Juvenile fish looking to go downstream will be directed by a net system and artificial outflow to a floating collector system. Young fish are transported downstream by special trucks to a release pond at Woodland.

Woodland release pond — $4 million, just east of Woodland. The ponds will provide short duration holding and release in the lower watershed for young fish collected at Swift.

Acclimation sites — $1.4 million, three sites planned, one on Muddy River, one on Clear Creek and one on North Fork of the Lewis near the road No. 90 crossing below Lower Falls. Ponds acclimate young spring chinook so they disperse to different portions of the watershed upon return as adults.

Approximately 33,000 yearling spring chinook will be held for six weeks at each acclimation site, Kinne said. The goal is to imprint the young salmon to different portions of the watershed so they will hone in on those areas to spawn when returning as adults.

The acclimation ponds are a small part of the massive project under way to bring salmon and steelhead back to the upper Lewis, blocked to sea-run fish by construction of Merwin Dam in 1931.

Yale Dam, built in 1953, and Swift Dam, built in 1958, also flooded fish habitat in the upper North Lewis watershed.

PacifiCorp was issued a 50-year federal license in 2008 to operate the three dams on the Lewis. The license issuance completed a 10-year negotiation process with stakeholders in the area, including local, state and federal agencies, Indian tribes, environmentalists and others.

PacifiCorp is at work on two major fish passage projects to reopen an estimated 117 miles of historic salmon and steelhead habitat in the upper watershed.

In a nutshell, adult spring chinook, early-stock coho and late wild winter steelhead will be trapped at Merwin Dam and trucked to the boat ramp at Swift Forest Park for release. Those fish will spawn in the upper watershed. Their downstream-headed young will be collected at Swift Dam and trucked down to Woodland for release into the lower North Fork of the Lewis.

At Merwin Dam, work is under way on an estimated $50-million fish collection facility that includes an attraction water system, fish ladder and hoist, collection tank, sorting facility and truck-loading system.

At Swift, construction is under way on an estimated $60-million floating collector system that will be adjacent to the dam. A net system plus 600 to 900 cubic feet per second of artificial streamflow pumped by the collection station will attact the young fish, typically 3 to 6 inches, into a gathering area.

The floating collection system is under construction at Swift Forest Camp and will be towed to Swift Dam.

Kinne said the Merwin and Swift collection systems are to be operational by the end of 2012.

Plans are to transport 2,000 adult spring chinook and 9,000 early coho from the lower North Fork of the Lewis River to Swift boat ramp.

Wild winter steelhead have been captured downstream of Merwin the past three years. About 26,000 smolts from those fish were released in 2010 with that number anticipated to be 50,000 a year for the remaining 14 years of the program.

Adults from that effort will be collected and trucked upstream. Kinne estimated about 250 steelhead will return this winter and 500 to 800 in subsequent winters.

The goal is to return salmon and steelhead numbers to enough abundance to have fishing seasons on the stocks in the upper North Lewis, he said.

“The whole intent of the settlement agreement is to reintroduce fish to a healthy and harvestable level of natural production fish in the Lewis,’’ Kinne said. “At some point in the future, if successful, it gets to a level where we can be harvesting in the upper watershed.’’

Efforts have been on-going for several years to prepare the upper watershed for salmon and steelhead. PacifiCorp and Cowlitz PUD have paid $300,000 annually for habitat work.

About 2,000 coho have been released to churn the gravel when spawning, Their carcasses also provide nutrient enhancement.

Anglers at Swift Reservoir have been catching the offspring of these coho in the April-through-November trout fishery, Kinne said.

Other habitat efforts have included decomissioning unmaintained roads, replacing culverts with bridges, removing illegal campsites along the streams and thinning trees to encourage faster growth thus more shade and bank stability, according to Adam Haspiel, a Gifford Pinchot National Forest fish biologist.

“Sheep Bridge,’’ a old bridge just upstream of Lower Falls, has been removed, Haspiel said. The timbers of the bridge had fallen into the Lewis and were leaching creosote.

Since most the upper North Lewis streams are in the Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service wants to “ensure the streams are ready when fish are reintroduced,’’ he said.

Pat Frazier, regional fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the Lewis River reintroduction is a big undertaking.

“It took a lot of work,’’ Frazier said. “This is an important step toward the recovery of Endangered Species Act-listed spring chinook, coho and winter steelhead in the lower Columbia River.’’

“It is amazing to think that the Lewis River fish now in the ocean will return to their native river and miles and miles of new habitat open to them after 2012,’’ said Todd Olson, program manager for PacifiCorp.

But will it all work?

Kinne said he is confident of success with coho and winter steelhead, but more cautious concerning spring chinook.

“I think it will be very successful for coho and successful for late winter wild steelhead,’’ he said. “I’m not sure about spring chinook. For spring chinook, it all hinges on collection efficiency of the smolt collection. They are a deeper fish and harder to collect.’’