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Endangered Chinook Hitching A Ride On Trucks Around Cracked Wanapum Dam

Anna King
Workers scramble to place temporary fixes on the fish ladders at the cracked Wanapum Dam on the Columbia River.

Hundreds of Chinook salmon are being rounded up and loaded into tanker trucks that will drive them around the cracked Wanapum Dam in southweast Washington.

The Columbia River will remain drawn down at least until June, which means fish can’t reach their traditional ladders. Engineers are working on extensions and water slides of sorts to get fish ladders working again. But work to install this new equipment has been difficult, with cranes, man baskets and the whipping wind.

“Imagine it with 60 to 70 miles-an-hour gusts, and workers and man lift, and trying to haul equipment around. You can see how, in pretty short order, things can get pretty dicey,” said Thomas Stredwick with the Grant County utility district. 

Workers are installing massive steel structures with wooden slides to help the fish over the dam. There’s a brewing storm coming upriver if it doesn’t work. This crew could start to see 12,000 fish collecting per day at the dam in the peak of summer. 

Trucking Fish Around The Dams

Already some early-migrating fish are forcing a short-term solution that could turn into something longer. At Priest Rapids Dam, about 20 miles down the Columbia River, utility workers are trapping these early migrators so they can be trucked around the dams. These trucks will fill up with thousands of gallons of river water and about 150 fish per load. 

Credit Anna King
At Priest Rapids Dam, workers practice transporting salmon in trucks.

“It’s unthinkable for anyone in the state that we wouldn’t get a salmon run up the river,” said Jeff Korth, a major fish manager for Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.

At the peak of the fish run, Korth’s crew and utility employees could be moving about 1,500 fish a day. They’re all hoping that engineers and construction crews can finish fixes on Wanapum and Rock Island dams soon so they won’t have to truck as many fish.

“One thing that’s not fortuitous is that the first run of salmon just happens to be the spring Chinook. And they are the most endangered fish we have up here. We are going to have to deal with the most critical population, right out of the gate,” Korth said.

‘Never Put Anything Past A Fish’

Credit Anna King
Jeff Korth is a manager with Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Korth worries that even with the best plans and engineering, working with salmon is still unpredictable. 

“That falls under the category that I call never put anything past a fish. If you’re absolutely sure they won’t do something, they’ll end up doing it,” he said.

And if the modified ladder systems don’t work by the time the larger summer run arrives, says Korth, “We’d have to make some very hard decisions. But we’re pretty optimistic we’re not going to get there.” 

“The logistics of hauling something like a half million fish would be pretty difficult,” Korth added.

Korth says inept ladders would probably mean deciding which runs of salmon to save. Korth says a lot of engineering, policy and sweat’s gone into getting salmon past the cracked dam. We won’t know for at least a few weeks whether all this hard work will pay off.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.