PARKDALE, Ore. (AP) — As salmon streams go, Hood River faces some unique challenges: glacial gullywashers from Mount Hood, heavy irrigation withdrawals for Oregon's top fruit orchards and a once hardy population of spring chinook that scientists figure was wiped out four decades ago.
But the Powerdale Dam came down in 2010, improving prospects for young salmon migrating downstream. Investment in the basin has spiked, part of a 2008 accord between four Columbia River tribes and the Bonneville Power Administration.
And early signs are that Hood River spring chinook, which biologists from The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Oregon officials are trying to restore, may be gaining a more secure foothold.
The numbers are small, but estimated returns of wild chinook topped 400 in 2012, tribal officials say, up from a low of 20 in 1999. Estimated returns of hatchery fish this year, about 1,100 to date, are relatively strong, even compared with the much bigger Deschutes River, says Mark Fritsch, project implementation manager for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
"They're starting to build a self-sustaining program there," Fristsh says, "and it should improve over time."
Tangible results on the Hood River would bolster expensive efforts across the Columbia River basin to restore salmon and steelhead runs, after decades of dam building and development knocked them down.
The Deschutes cuts through the Warm Springs reservation, but Hood River's spring chinook are also vital to the tribes. The river is in the tribes' treaty ceded lands, where they still retain fishing rights. And Punchbowl Falls is a spectacular tribal fishing spot for the first salmon to return from the ocean each spring.
After years of fishing shutdowns, improving returns have allowed spring chinook fishing the last seven years for both tribal and non-tribal anglers, says Chris Brun, coordinator of the tribes' Hood River production program. Hatchery fish, marked by a clipped fin, are kept, wild fish released.
For the tribes, being part of the solution is "really important," says Brun, standing on cliffs that jut 100 feet above the falls. "And this is a place where tribal members can fish in seclusion."
Out of extinction
Hood River scribes the line where western Oregon meets east. Over millennia, the salmon reared there had to adapt to a unique terrain, with lava flows, fire and flash flooding.
But by the late 1960s, the Hood's spring chinook run was effectively "extirpated," federal fish biologists say.
Bonneville Dam, completed downstream on the Columbia in 1938, slashed salmon returns, as did habitat destruction and splash dams built by farmers.
Debris flows fueled by huge winter storms hurt, too — you may remember the last one in 2006, which destroyed a section of Oregon 35. The Hood is relatively cool and clear. But river temperatures increased with irrigation withdrawals and lower water volume; state regulators still count the river as impaired for high temperatures.
Today, all native runs of salmon and steelhead on the river are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Beginning in the early 1990s, the tribes and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife started stocking the river with hatchery bred spring chinook, taken from Deschutes River stocks, to try to resurrect the wild run.
Under the "supplementation" approach, when the hatchery fish return to the river, they're allowed onto wild spawning grounds. When their offspring return, they're counted as wild.
The effort amped up after 2008, when the Warm Springs, Colville, Umatilla and Yakama nations signed accords with the BPA, which sells hydropower from the Columbia basin's dams.
The 10-year deal granted $900 million for tribal hatchery and habitat improvements. In exchange, the tribes agreed to drop out of a long-running lawsuit challenging dam operations.
Along the Hood River, the money has helped pay for stream improvements to supplement the reintroduction efforts, from enhancing spawning habitat to helping irrigation districts conserve water in pear, cherry and apple orchards, increasing river flows.
"We're rebuilding habitat and constantly supplementing the run, so they'll kind of heal together," Brun says.
Too soon to judge
The accords also plowed roughly $5 million into capital projects along the river. The tribes' Parkdale hatchery expanded its juvenile rearing space. Last month, the tribes opened a new fish ladder and potential rearing ponds on the river's west fork, considered the best spot for spring chinook.
In the next few years, Brun says, the tribes hope to raise all 150,000 spring chinook hatchery smolts along the river before releasing them. Today, about half are raised in a Deschutes River hatchery, a high desert spot that's a far cry from the Hood basin.
"They're sniffing that out-of-basin water for most of their lives, and a fair amount are straying back to the Deschutes" when they return from the ocean as adults, Brun says. "We're a small program, so every fish is important."
One drawback of taking down the Powerdale Dam: All the fish, including both chinook and steelhead, had to pass it, making it easy to count fish and thoroughly study returns.
Some of those studies used genetic analysis to conclude that interbreeding between hatchery fish and wild fish was hurting wild fish returns, though those studies were focused on steelhead, not chinook.
The hope is the new ladder and trap will capture most of the fish on the west fork. That would aid research efforts and allow for better selection of returning hatchery fish for hatchery broodstock and release into spawning grounds.
At this point, it's too soon to say with certainty whether the changes along Hood River have improved wild populations, says Rod French, an ODFW fish biologist. Habitat is limited, he says, and it's unlikely the wild population will ever recover to robust numbers of old.
But the spring chinook are recolonizing tributaries throughout the Hood basin, Brun says. Counts of redds, or salmon nests, are up. The percent of smolts returning as adults has increased, too.
Long-term, limited river flows from irrigation withdrawals make it likely hatchery fish will still have to be produced to supply anglers, Brun says. But he hopes that the wild run will become self-sustaining, with no need to allow hatchery fish in the spawning grounds to supplement strengthened wild stocks.
"Human population is going to limit what the basin can produce," he says. "We're looking for a middle ground, where we can have both fish and farmers."
Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press