PNP comment: This may be “old” news, but it is relevant to our situation in Siskiyou, CA. as the state and feds still want to destroy 4 hydro-electric dams in the Klamath River that are 190 miles inland, which will in turn devastate the river quality with tons and tons of sediment. — Editor Liz Bowen
Two days after I hiked the sandy, rocky desolation that used to be Lake Mills, as many as 200,000 chinook salmon were killed in what has to be one of the biggest blunders in the history of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The year-old salmon were released from the new $16 million Elwha Hatchery run by the state and Lower Elwha Klallam tribe on April 5. Most — if not all — were killed when they tried to swim downstream through the thick gray goop that is the lower Elwha River, created by the removal of two dams built illegally in 1910.
Though they only had to negotiate 3.5 miles of the river before reaching clearer waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the silt in the river began choking them almost the minute they swam from the crystalline hatchery water into the moving mire that is the Elwha. Hatchery officials reported seeing hundreds of dead smolts lining the riverbank, their gills clogged by the same silt that forced “temporary closure” of a $70 million Elwha River water treatment plant.
In the Port Angeles Daily News, Mike Gross, Fish and Wildlife biologist, called the release of the salmon “a mistake.” Gross said he suspected the fish suffocated when silt prevented their gills from providing oxygen.
I imagine it would be akin to trying to breathe volcanic ash for days without a mask, or running a marathon in a massive dust storm.
Hatchery officials said they checked on the amount of silt in the Elwha on April 4, and determined it was acceptable to release the fish. They said the silt in the river increased overnight.
I hiked about 3 miles downstream in the desolate bed of the former Lake Mills on April 3, and I don’t need a degree in biology to tell you that no fish could live in that water. The river looked no different when I left the Elwha Campground on April 4.
For almost 15 miles, the Elwha River carves through a century’s worth of mud, sand and river cobble deposited behind the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams. Above Rica Canyon, at the entrance to the former Lake Mills, the river is the same old blue friend I’ve known for more than 50 years.
But beginning at the old Lake Mills inlet, the river turns into gray slurry that is poison to any fish. I don’t imagine many wild animals drink from that deadly potion and live, either.
Fisheries biologists have been releasing coho salmon into Indian Creek, which flows from the west into the Elwha; and Little River, which flows from the east. Both tributaries are about 7 miles upstream from the mouth of the river.
They’ve reported some of the fish, along with a few chinook they released into Lake Mills before it became the desolation it is today, have survived the gantlet of poison. Now the state is planning to release nearly a million salmon from the hatchery in June.
About the same time, work on removing the remainder of the Glines Canyon dam is expected to resume, which will surely cause more sediment to be swept downstream. Worse, concrete dust from the dam will be stirred into the mix, making it even more deadly.
Let us hope the state and tribe can think of a way to get healthy salmon from the hatchery to the Strait before they kill a million more fish.
Seabury Blair Jr. is the author of Backcountry Ski! Washington; Day Hike! Olympic Peninsula; Day Hike! Columbia Gorge; The Creaky Knees Guide to Washington; the Creaky Knees Guide to Oregon; and Washington Wild Roads. Email Seabury at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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