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Steve Wright | Fish are finding home in new Chelan River channel

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World file photo/Don Seabrook The fish habitat channel, shown here just after its completion in 2009, is part of the Chelan River Project and was designed to take advantage of the river’s flow year-round. A pump station brings water from the area below the Chelan Powerhouse into the channel.

On a recent sparkling fall day, I found myself at the confluence of the Chelan and Columbia rivers. There I joined Jeff Osborne and Alene Underwood, two of the fish biologists at the PUD. They took great pride in introducing me to hundreds of fall Chinook getting ready to spawn as they were milling about in a newly created habitat channel. It was a magical moment as the sound of rushing water and fish slapping the surface melded with the beauty of healthy vegetation alongside the banks of a restored river at the base of Chelan Falls.

Alene and Jeff were proudly displaying the fruits of their labor using well-spent ratepayer dollars that have created valuable habitat. The restoration of the Chelan River is one of the requirements of the Lake Chelan Hydro Project 50-year license issued in 2006 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The goal was to create more returning salmon and steelhead for recreational fishing. Judging by the number of fish in the river, the program has been a huge success.

I was struck by the ingenuity that has taken place resulting in a tremendous opportunity for local fishermen.

PUD engineers and fish biologists worked with a variety of state and federal agencies and tribal representatives to create a natural river with more spawning and rearing habitat for Chinook salmon and steelhead.

The habitat channel is part of the Chelan River Project and was designed to take advantage of the river’s flow from the dam year-round. A pump station sends water from the area below the powerhouse into the channel. Innovative and collaborative thinking by PUD employees was the key to success

The team had to “think like a fish” and use their experience and research to come up with the amazing new digs for fish. The result is pools and riffles, including boulders and large woody material habitat for cover, food, resting, spawning, and rearing areas that make salmon and steelhead feel right at home.

The number of egg nests, or “redds,” in the area has gone from about 150 in 2008 to more than 640 this fall. Our fish folks tell me that’s a higher per mile of stream result than in top-producing natural streams in the Wenatchee River system, particularly for steelhead.

Our customer-owners benefit too, because the project balances the ability to keep generating affordable power at the Chelan Dam with stewardship for local salmon and steelhead stocks.

The initial license discussions would have had the district reduce the amount of water available for generating power and made the hydro project uneconomic. But the creative thinking got negotiations focused on fish and fish habitat. In the end, we were able to increase fish habitat by three to four acres, and do it with much less water than in the initial discussions. Great people can and do create great value for you as PUD ratepayers.

Not only is the project “fish approved,” in April 2010 it received the National Hydropower Association’s Outstanding Stewards of America’s Waters award. And, it is making a lot of our sport fishing community very happy. Come share the magic. The PUD operates a park on the Chelan River where you can witness fish in the river for yourself (during the spawning season). Come visit.

Steve Wright is general manager of Chelan Public Utility District. He can be reached at steve.wright@chelanpud.org

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