EPHRATA — The Grant County PUD’s federal regulators have agreed to suspend until at least 2026 an ongoing program to capture and rear the highly endangered White River spring chinook salmon, because the utility’s captive-breeding program might actually be further endangering the fish.
The decision means the PUD and feds will no longer seek to build a series of controversial ponds along the shoreline of the pristine river, divert its water to fill the ponds, and use them to raise and release as many as 165,000 of the young fish annually.
The Ephrata-based utility will also do what the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust and Lake Wenatchee community members have long asked for — subject their fish data to an independent scientific review before deciding if the program should resume beyond 2026.
“We believe this is good news,” Bob Bugert, executive director of the Land Trust, said Thursday. “This is what we’ve been hoping for all along. For the viability of fish and wildlife populations, this is the best choice.”
The PUD will eliminate its existing White River spring chinook breeding program by 2016, but will continue to monitor the highly endangered fish until 2026, Jeff Grizzel, the PUD’s director of natural resources, said Thursday during a visit to The World.
No decision to move ahead with the fish-recovery plan or the ponds would come before then, he said.
“We’re saying, gosh, we’re not sure that this was the best approach,” Grizzel said. “We would like 2026 to be a decision year to determine what the rest of this program looks like.”
The young fish are now kept in net pens in Lake Wenatchee at the mouth of the White River and in portable rectangular tanks filled with White River water on PUD property along the river’s shoreline. About 75,000 are targeted for release this year. Salmon “imprint” on the water of their rearing streams and return there to spawn after migrating to the ocean to mature.
The decision not to build the ponds amounts to an about-face for the utility, whose officials once insisted that they were federally bound to carry out the project to compensate for salmon killed by their Columbia River dams, Priest Rapids and Wanapum.
The ponds sparked widespread concern from the Lake Wenatchee community and the Land Trust, which owns 400 acres near the ponds’ proposed site.
Last year, a Chelan County administrative judge denied all the project’s building permits, ruling that the ponds violated local shoreline-use rules. County planners had earlier reached the same conclusion.
The PUD then angered county officials by turning to a federal process in an attempt to build the ponds anyway. The feds, themselves, halted that effort, urging the PUD seek a solution that doesn’t violate state or local rules.
Grizzel said a turn-around came last year, after federal, state and tribal authorities studied PUD-collected data and agreed that the captive-bred fish could be genetically different from their native counterparts. That’s because program officials have been unable to collect enough brood stock to create a captive, functioning gene pool, he said, and would be pressed to find replacements to existing captive breeders.
Federal fish regulators were also concerned that:
Despite the existing raise-and-release program, which has been going on since 1997, the survival rate of juvenile fish remains low.
Numbers of adult fish that return to the White River to spawn remain low.
A “sub group” of spring chinook salmon reared on the nearby Chiwawa River in a Chelan County PUD hatchery “stray” into the White River when they return to spawn. This further threatens the integrity of White River spring chinook genetics.
Grizzel said the captive-breeding program for the White River fish will continue until the PUD’s existing breeding stock reaches the end of its productive cycle in 2016. After that, they’ll stop all breeding, but continue to monitor the fish.
“They have to mitigate for their hydro, and we have to process permits according to our law,” Chelan County Commissioner Ron Walter said Thursday. “Part of the question that will get answered between now and 2026 is whether supplementation is beneficial or detrimental. It’s a great step.”
Grizzel said he has no immediate plans to meet with Lake Wenatchee community members to discuss the agreement, but would be willing to.
Land Trust officials and White River advocates have opposed the project, saying the river is one of the few that remains relatively unaltered by human activity and is more valuable as a means to study fish populations not boosted by captive breeding. The river also tends to “wander” from its course during storm or spring run-off events, rendering its shorelines unsuitable for construction.
Grant PUD will begin building a fish-rearing facility on Nason Creek, a tributary of the nearby Wenatchee River, next year, Grizzel said. The project is slated for a fall 2014 completion.
No one has objected to it, and nearly all its permits are in order, he said.
Christine Pratt: 665-1173