Students build first rain-powered fish hatchery in Oregon

Students build first rain-powered fish hatchery in Oregon
In this Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2010 photo, Henry Balensifer, right, a Warrenton High School graduate and the CEO of Warrenton High Fisheries, Inc., shows off one of three sand filters that removes particulates from the water in Warrenton, Ore. The sand filters are part of the hatchery's new filtration system that also uses an Ultraviolet filter and oxygen filter to treat well water and rainwater. (AP Photo/The Daily Astorian, Alex Pajunas)

WARRENTON, Ore. (AP) — There's a poison that's plagued fishery students at Warrenton High School for years.

To get rid of it, and its deadly effect on the school's yearly crop of chinook, chum and coho salmon, students have spent hundreds - perhaps thousands - of hours scrubbing away deep mahogany-colored stains from the insides of the wide tubs the fish are reared in.

"We call it the scars of the Skipanon. It's ugly stuff," said Henry Balensifer, a Warrenton High School grad and chief executive officer of Warrenton High Fisheries Inc.

It's the water, drawn from the adjacent Skipanon River, that's the problem. Alder and hemlock trees' leaves drop into the slow-moving waterway and steep, leaching tannins into the water and turning it a cloudy brown. Together with the river's penchant for disease and low oxygen levels, the murky brew has proved a lethal challenge for students to battle with - year after year.

"Students affectionately call it alder tea," Balensifer said.

All that is about to change this fall.

A new $63,000 filtration system will deliver clean, super-oxygenated water to the facility and virtually eliminate disease. The river will be bypassed, and double-filtered rain and well water will be collected instead, making it the first fish hatchery in the state to use collected rain as its primary source.

It's a bold move that makes elements of Warrenton's fishery program on par with hatcheries operated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said Roger Warren, former ODFW Gnat Creek Hatchery manager, who helped design the system. In other ways, it's downright groundbreaking.

"It's the first rain-powered hatchery in the state," Warren said.

The project earned nods from ODFW'S Restoration and Enhancement Board, who awarded nearly $49,000 to pay for the enhancements, and even Oregon Sen. Betsy Johnson, who watched as Balensifer resurrected Warrenton's hatchery. The kudos are for more than just the students' abilities to study and research fish - they learn life skills and many end up with careers in the industry.

"It's a durable, experiential program that attracts bright motivated kids. It doesn't get any better than that," Johnson said.

Warrenton's fishery program has been around for decades - in one form or another. Local seafood innovator Duncan Law conceived the idea of a fisheries education program and helped start both Warrenton and Astoria's program, Balensifer said. But poor water quality has been a challenge the whole time, sometimes even leading to the death of an entire year of fish.

In 2006 and 2008, after resurrecting the program after it had foundered for several years, Balensifer worked with the program's board of directors to hatch a plan that would increase fish survival and eliminate disease.

First he tried a simple sand filter, but learned it didn't make the water clear. Balensifer then called the former Clatsop County Economic Development Council fisheries project manager Tod Jones, to get the brainstorming started.

But still, there was one major hurdle.

"The question was - how to get the money," Balensifer said.

He decided to go to the ODFW's Research and Enhancement Board, a seven member group that oversees the awarding of $5.2 million every year to be used to restore state-owned hatcheries, enhance natural fish production, expand hatchery production and provide additional public access to fishing waters. The program is funded by a $4 surcharge on all sport fishing licenses, and license and landing fees from the commercial gillnetting and troll fisheries.

It's a very competitive process, said Laura Tesler, the coordinator for the Research and Enhancement program. Usually about 25 groups apply for funding each biennium, but this time the number was up to 40.

The board is made up of three individuals who represent the commercial fishers, three for recreational fishers and another member at large. This project was one that impressed everyone, Tesler said.

"They pick the projects that they really like," she said.

Current Board President Gary Soderstrom, a Clatskanie gillnetter, said the project was easy to get behind because it was clear that students and the whole community are passionate about seeing it succeed and grow. The board was familiar with Balensifer, and all he has accomplished.

"We think he'll be governor within 15 years," Soderstrom said.

When it came time to present to the board, Balensifer spent lots of time getting ready and invited a group of fishery students to come to Salem with him to see the process.

"I developed probably the fanciest Powerpoint presentation in my life, and was hoping the students' presence at the meeting would help, but I still wasn't sure - I was just doing all I could," he said.

But as the day got closer, he realized the students themselves might be more effective. He shortened his presentation from 15 to three slides and gave the floor to the high schoolers.

"The students who came knocked the board's socks off and had piqued their interest. I feel that those kids really showed how capable our students are," Balensifer said.

The strategy change was a brilliant adjustment that showed the board some of the lessons they'd learned that didn't have anything to do with fish, Soderstrom said.

"They've learned how to organize, leadership and public speaking," he said.

Determination, they learned from watching Balensifer's earnest fight to make the hatchery one of the best programs in the state, Soderstrom added.

"Henry's a pretty exceptional kid. It comes right out of his heart - you can see it," he said.

Jessica McDonald, an 18-year-old Warrenton High School grad who was the hatchery manager last school year, said the five students were nervous and a bit self conscious to get up and make that presentation. But it was exciting at the same time.

"Everyone was looking at us like, 'What are those kids doing here?'" McDonald said.

They explained to the board exactly what was needed to save the fish, and in the end, they got what they needed.

"Overall the most important thing the hatchery taught me is if you want something to change, you can make it happen. You just need to be ambitious," she said.

It's a lesson she said she learned from Balensifer too.

"He gets full credit for that," McDonald said.

She's going to Oregon State University in a few weeks, where she'll study environmental economics with a minor in fish and wildlife.

It's lifelong connections like hers that the program's supporters say makes it valuable when young lives extend beyond the classroom.

"They're intuitive, curious and invested," Johnson said of the students she's met and watched move on to related careers.

"It's experiential learning," she said. "For some of these kids it's transformative."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.