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Using Bull Run Water To Help Wild Salmon

You may notice a few more salmon around Portland starting this afternoon. A ceremony starting in a few minutes at a downtown park will unveil more than 30 brightly painted salmon sculptures.

Meantime, city officials are finishing work on plans to insure that salmon will remain around Portland as more than just art work.

As Rob Manning reports, the challenge of a multi-million dollar effort is to restore salmon in the Sandy River without depriving Portlanders of drinking water.

Bull Run DamThe Sandy River empties into the Columbia River a dozen or so miles west of Portland not far from Troutdale. It drains a vast area north of Mount Hood.

The Sandy has national importance as a lifeline for endangered fish. Steve Kucas is a water services program manager for the City of Portland. Standing next to a tributary, he calls the Sandy unique habitat for Chinook salmon.

Steve Kucas: "There's only two streams that have naturally self-sustaining populations, and those are the Sandy River, and the Lewis River. That's it, that's what's left. So this watershed is very important. And for the Coho, there's only two rivers, and it's the Sandy River and the Clackamas."

Portland General Electric is taking a big step toward helping salmon by removing two hydroelectric dams on the Sandy.

The city of Portland owns two dams on a tributary of the Sandy. Those dams on the Bull Run help send drinking water to 800,000 people. But they're part of the salmon dilemma, as well.

Two yellow gates block the road into the Bull Run watershed. Only city officials have the keys. On this summer day, they're leading a tour for fish advocates, scientists and anyone who's interested in learning about plans to recover salmon.

Jody: "This area, with the gate that no one's allowed into, the protected area is about 140 square miles. The actual Bull Run watershed, or the drainage basin is 102 square miles. So what we're going to do today while we're in the watershed…."

The watershed is home to four threatened populations: fall and spring Chinook salmon, coho, and steelhead. From the top of one of the Bull Run dams, Steve Kucas identifies the 80-year-old problem.

Steve Kucas: "That's called the diversion dam - it's that structure right there. It was built way back in the 1920's, way before we built this other stuff."

Kucas has looked back at the Water Bureau's reports and says officials in the '20s weren't worried about fish.

Steve Kucas: "The year after we finished construction, our chief engineer complained to the Oregon Fish Commission about all the fish that were showing up to our facility. We were pestered by that."

Federal officials are now the ones pestering the city by enforcing Endangered Species protections for threatened fish.

Kucas says city officials studied what it would take to get fish beyond just the lower stretch of the Bull Run and into the area where Portland drinking water comes from.

Steve Kucas: "We blocked fish there fifty years before there was even an Endangered Species Act. But we considered what it would take to get fish to the upper watershed, and to cut to the quick, the City of Portland said 'it would cost too much for the number of fish that we could produce in the Upper Basin to justify fish passage in the Upper Bull Run, and we'd rather spend that money more cost-effectively in the Sandy Basin'."Bull Run 2

In other words, the Bull Run dams are staying put because adding fish ladders or other steps would cost a lot and not do enough. Instead, the city is planning to spend close to $100 million over the next 50 years to improve habitat — downstream.

The approach seems to follow the kind of 'invest in what's working' philosophy touted by Chris Robbins. He works for the Wild Salmon Center.

Chris Robbins: "There are some legally threatened or endangered populations in the Sandy Basin, but relatively speaking, some of those populations are relatively healthy. We're not saying we should abandon those populations, but we should also be investing in those populations are doing well now."

The city plan proposes spending about ten million to allow dams to send cool water to downstream fish when they need it. Millions more dollars would cover the cost of pumping drinking water out of the ground, when Bull Run water is needed to help fish.

Not everything about the plan is expected to flow smoothly. The Bull Run watershed is locked up behind government-owned gates. But the lower Sandy has private homes on its banks.

The City of Portland's Steve Kucas says that means convincing homeowners that habitat measures won't flood their land.

Steve Kucas: "When they hear a biologist come in and he's talking about either planting trees to improve the habitat that way, or adding things like large wood into the stream to make things more complex for fish, they're worried that it may raise the flood elevation or divert the river toward their property."

The habitat conservation plan makes some assumptions about the next half century. For one, that hundreds of thousands of people expected to migrate here will drink water from a source other than Bull Run.

That may not be the case. And if global climate change affects surface water levels, the balance between water for fish and water for drinking may get thrown off.

The plan goes out for public comment this fall. If conditions do change in years to come, bureau officials say they will consider revisiting the plan.

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