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Hatching a Hatchery

By Andy and Allison Dappen
For three hours during the evening of June 21, over 80 citizens and about a dozen employees representing the Grant County PUD, National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Yakama Nation, and Colville Tribes, packed into Leavenworth’s Fire Hall to discuss the notion of whether to build a hatchery or supplementation fish program above the mouth of the White River. Such a hatchery near the north end of Lake Wenatchee would help recover the spring-run Chinook salmon, an endangered species in the tributaries of the upper Columbia River.

Rob Walton and Kris Petersen (NOAA Fisheries), Tom Dresser and Russell Langshaw (Grand County PUD), and Kirk Truscott (WDFW) gave presentations in quick succession.

They said that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) required Grant Country PUD to mitigate for fish killed at the Priest Rapids Dam as part of their license agreement. They documented the plight of spring Chinooks which are returning to spawning grounds in the upper Columbia in such low numbers that they are in real danger of blinking out. They said science had no clear-cut solutions yet stated they believed a captive brood program, transitioning to adult-trap program, transitioning to nothing at all could restore natural-spawning spring salmon in the White River. They emphasized that involving the public in the process was of paramount importance. And they shared very rough detail of what their project might look like in regards to buildings, weirs, acclimation ponds, and intake and outtake channels.

The agency personnel present insisted science was driving the decisions and their brochure said the partners in this project “follow the principle of adaptive management and ask one simple question: ‘Does it follow science?’”

But local citizens talking amongst themselves before and after the meeting and most like Jon Soust, Heather Murphy, Nick Gayeski, and Bob Stroup, who gave statements or asked questions of the presenters wondered aloud whether the best science was being employed. Many said or implied that politics and licensing mandates were driving the issue.

Gordon Congdon, Executive Director of the Chelan Douglas Land Trust, said that considering the stakes (the White River has been proposed as a Wild and Scenic River, and is one of the best natural-functioning rivers with some of the best salmon habitat in the state), any project operating here needed to be biologically sound, ecologically benign, consistent with local planning, and cost effective if the PUD expected to garner public support. He asked Rob Walton, the Assistant Regional Administrator for NOAA-Fisheries, to commit to letting an independent panel of experts review the issue to determine whether there was strong scientific support for this project. “If it’s independently verified that this is the right step, you’ll have much broader support.”

Dick Rieman, a board member of the Icicle Fund and a Leavenworth resident, was one of several others who echoed Congdon’s sentiment that independent review should be sought—especially in light of the fact that “so many mistakes have been made (in the history) of salmon recovery.”

Rob Walton, representing NOAA Fisheries,  would not publicly commit to an independent scientific review but stated affiliated experts working elsewhere on the Columbia River and well-schooled in these issues would be asked to study the proposal and evaluate the science. Walton’s reluctance was not well received by those who had come to the meeting harboring suspicions. Issuing further review to experts of the agency’s choosing had the whiff of scientific collusion that added fuel to the fire of suspicion.
Meanwhile Chelan County commissioners Keith Goehner and Ron Walter put fire to the toes of the Grant County PUD and its partners. Commissioner Goehner rebuked the hatchery committee for giving lip service to the transparency of its process stating this claim was “disingenuous.” “This seems to undermine a public process that has been going on (in Chelan County) for seven years,” said Goehner. Commissioner Walter said the agencies “should have held this meeting 18 months ago.” Both said that not only had the public been kept out of the loop, but that Chelan County’s planning mechanisms for its watershed had been ignored.

In the end, one could not help but recognize the complexity of the issue. Local spring-run Chinook salmon are hanging onto survival by a fin, the Grant County PUD has FERC and NOAA holding guns to the head and demanding that something be done about fish kill and endangered species of salmon; the science of what works in the restoration of salmon is contradictory, checkered and site specific; the White River is a natural-functioning and productive system that might be best served if left alone; and other reasonably prudent alternatives could be employed to help recover spring-run Chinook in the region.
However, the presentation failed the most basic of litmus tests: It didn’t look the public unflinchingly in the eye and say, “Even if our licensing weren’t at stake we’d do this now because it’s the right thing to do.” Instead, because of licensing pressures, this project smacks of hoop jumping on a bureaucratic scale designed to show ‘something is being done.’ Rather than allaying the public’s concern, the meeting may have heightened the feeling that science and responsible governance are not steering this train.