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Still Waters Run Deep And Deadly For Columbia River Salmon

The Modern Day Columbia River – Part Two

Environmentalists often call Columbia River dams “fish killers.”  But in fact the deadliest dam isn’t a dam at all: it’s a 76-mile reservoir that pools behind a dam east of The Dalles, Oregon.

In part two of our journey down the Columbia River, correspondent Anna King takes a closer look at the deadly John Day reservoir.

The John Day reservoir is the longest lake on the Columbia that young salmon must swim on their way to the ocean. It’s deep, it’s slow, it’s warm and there are predators.

Charles Hudson: "It’s essentially a graveyard for so many of the Columbia Basin's migrating salmon."

Charles Hudson is a spokesman for the tribes that have fishing rights on the Columbia River. He says several factors combine to kill many of the finger-long fish during this leg of their journey.

Charles Hudson: "Elevated water temperature, predation problems and the time they spend in it, those things create one of the deadliest reservoirs in the Columbia River."

Juvenile salmon have a ticking biological clock. Once they start on their journey they have to reach the sea quickly in order to survive.

Before the dams were built it took about a day for the young fish to travel this 70-mile stretch of the river. Now fish biologists say it takes on average five to six days. Hudson says this is unacceptable.

Charles Hudson: "Pure and simple, we need some dramatic reform some dramatic action to take place in the Columbia River. And adjustments to John Day is one that biologists continually come back to."

‘Adjustments’ means drawing down the John Day reservoir to create more of a river-like flow. Hudson says lowering the reservoir could be as beneficial for fish as removing the lower four Snake River dams.

The Army Corps of Engineers disputes that claim. It says lowering the water level in John Day would only reduce the tiny salmon’s journey through the entire system by just a half day.

Either way lowering the water level could create other problems — especially for irrigators and barges.

Irrigators would have to extend their piping and pumps to reach the river. Barges might have to lighten their loads.

For now, dam supporters and fish advocates will continue to duke it out over the costs and benefits of lowering the John Day reservoir.

At the dam itself, Miro Zyndol is doing what he can to help the fish that get this far. He’s a fish biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Miro Zyndol: “Let’s go to the top of the dam now.”

We ride eight stories up in an elevator. The Army Corps has retro-fitted the dam to make it easier for fish to get by. A kind of waterslide twists and turns from the top of the dam to the bottom.

It collects and carries small fish past the structure and deposits them below the dam. Along the way, biologists tag some of the fish. A redesigned fish ladder helps adult salmon headed up river to spawn.

Despite improvements like these, the dam still proves to be an insurmountable barrier for many fish. Juvenile salmon often have trouble finding their way through the dam and can spend hours looking for the current that tells them where to go.

Miro Zyndol: "The water is traveling too deep and the fish are surface-oriented therefore they are not detecting the flow which is too deep in the water column and they are confused."

So Zyndol and his colleagues are working on yet another retrofit.

As for the proposal to draw down John Day reservoir, Zyndol says it might render his work at the dams, the fish passage systems, unusable. He’s truly invested in the role he plays in the long and difficult journey of the salmon.

Miro Zyndol: “I’m not responsible for the habitat component, I’m not responsible for the ocean conditions, but in terms of the fish passage I think we already have good evidence that we can solve the problem.”

Saving Columbia River salmon has become a multi-billion dollar undertaking, full of controversy, lawsuits and competing scientific claims. But it’s perhaps most personal for Native American tribes who have fished the Columbia for generations and watched the salmon dwindle.

 Eric Queahpama
Eric Queahpama pulls his net out of his boat after a day of fishing the Columbia River near John Day Dam.

Below John Day Dam, Eric Queahpama arrives dockside with his catch of the day. He’s a Warm Springs tribal member who earns part of his living fishing for salmon. Pulling his net out of the boat, Queahpama says the run isn’t that good this year.

Eric Queahpama: "I don’t know where all the fish are at. Usually by this time we are already smiling.”

In fact, the fall Chinook run is down forty percent this year.

Queahpama unloads the fish from the bottom of the boat and puts them into a large tub. This morning’s haul could be worth a thousand dollars. But fish mean a lot more than a paycheck to his family, it’s a sacred food.

Eric Queahpama: “It’s not about catching thousands and thousands of pounds it’s about seeing that one salmon. I’ve been doing this for a lot of years and I respect it. That’s the way everyone should be.”

Even though Queahpama fishes in the shadow of John Day Dam, he chooses not to dwell on the changes to this river that are embodied in the massive concrete structure.

Eric Queahpama: “We make the best of what we got now. We had no choice. Everybody made the choices for us years ago and now we got to accept the consequences.”

With that, Queahpama rushes off to put his fresh fish on ice and negotiate with a potential buyer.

Next we look at the commerce of the Columbia River system , from the deck of a tug boat that guides barges carrying Northwest crops to foreign markets.