ARIEL — State and federal fishery officials, along with PacifiCorp, have agreed to delay the preparation of Yale Reservoir and its tributaries for the reintroduction of salmon and steelhead.
PacifiCorp’s federal license to operate Merwin, Yale and Swift hydroelectric dams on the North Fork of the Lewis River calls for the utility to have a downstream fish passage facility at Yale Dam operational by June 26, 2021.
The settlement agreement between PacifiCorp and the fish agencies, Forest Service, Indian tribes and local governments also requires a “habitat preparation plan’’ beginning five years prior to fish passage.
Habitat preparation includes releasing live salmon and steelhead in Yale, said Frank Shrier, principal scientist for PacifiCorp. The fish will churn the gravel in spawning tributaries and provide nutrients through their decaying carcasses.
Two federal fishery agencies will make the final decision in February 2017 whether to require salmon and steelhead reintroduction in Yale, or have PacifiCorp spend mitigation money elsewhere.
Coho were used for habitat preparation years ago in Swift Reservoir, before reintroduction began upstream of Swift Dam.
However, excess coho might not be available this fall. Coho returns were far below forecasts in 2015 and another subpar run is anticipated for 2016.
Too few coho were available in 2015 to meet the target of 7,500 adult coho transported upstream of Swift into the upper Lewis.
The Lewis River Aquatic Coordination Committee agreed last month to wait until 2017 on starting the habitat preparation.
“It does not make sense to start habitat preparation until we’re sure we’re going to put fish up there,’’ said Patrick Frazier, a policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Coho runs often are boom-or-bust. Fish to put in Yale could be plentiful within a year or two, Frazier added.
Bryce Michaelis of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest also said waiting a year makes sense.
At Swift Reservoir, adult coho and chinook released in the reservoir are spawning, then some of their young stay in the reservoir, grow and spawn without going to the ocean.
Michaelis mentioned not wanting to start a similar sub-basin fish population that can’t be removed in Yale Reservoir.
Shrier said the settlement agreement requires live fish be used for habitat preparation, but does not specify a number. He also said kokanee and bull trout in Yale tributaries already are turning over gravel.
In August, consultant Kevin Malone of DJ Warren and Associates presented modeling of the anadromous fish habitat in tributaries to Merwin and Yale reservoirs.
Merwin has about 5 miles of habitat, while Yale has about 17 miles, Malone said.
By comparison, upstream of Swift Dam has 117 miles.
The license for the three dams calls for downstream fish passage available at Merwin Dam by June 26, 2025.