Restoring Habitat Favors Fish

A work crew stands on an engineered logjam, part of a project to restore native fish habitat on the Cle Elum River. The constructed tangle of logs creates calm eddies and provides safe harbors, offering forage and refuge opportunities for young and spawning salmon. The project was sponsored by the McNary Fisheries Compensation Committee, which is funded jointly by Northern Wasco County PUD and Klickitat PUD. Photo Courtesy of MFCC

By Rodger Nichols

Just like the mighty Columbia River, Northern Wasco County PUD has far more going on behind the scenes than immediately visible on the surface.

One of those activities involves the McNary Fisheries Compensation Committee. The group many people have never heard of is looking for good ideas and is willing to pay for them.

MFCC dates back to 1991. That year, the PUD finished installing a generator in the fish attraction outflow from the north fish ladder at The Dalles Dam and proposed an installation twice as large for the fish attraction outflow of the north fish ladder at McNary Dam, which was completed in 1954.

Because the McNary turbine would not have a juvenile fish bypass system, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission directed the PUD to negotiate a settlement agreement with various agencies to mitigate these losses.

The agencies included the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Yakama Nation. Each agency, as well as the PUD, has a representative committee.

Completed in 1991 before turbine construction began, the agreement required the PUD to invest $110,000 a year into a trust fund the MFCC would control. Any individual, agency, or nonprofit entity with an idea for a project that would mitigate impacts to anadromous fish stocks above McNary Dam could apply for a grant. The amount increases each year— indexed to inflation—and is now about $150,000 a year.

Fund contributions were to begin on or before the date of commercial operation in 1997. The trust fund grew to more than $2 million by the time the first grant proposal was received in 2011.

Rick Martinson represents the PUD on the McNary Fisheries Compensation Committee. Rick is employed by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. He manages smolt-monitoring operations at John Day and Bonneville dams. He works with MFCC as a private contractor.

Rick is the committee coordinator responsible for setting up quarterly meetings, setting an agenda, and recording minutes. When grant applications are received, he distributes them to committee members. Grants are approved by a simple majority vote.

Once approved, Rick prepares the grant award document and distributes it for signing.

“Once the grants are active, recipients submit invoices for reimbursement,” he says. “I review them and forward them to the PUD for reimbursement.”

Rick says the committee has approved 23 grants since the first one in 2011, but none since August 2019. Most applications have been from state agencies, but there have been several from private entities, such as Trout Unlimited and Kittitas Conservation Trust. Individuals are welcome to apply if they have good ideas.

The committee’s preference is to be a co-sponsor of a project, partnering with other funding sources rather than serving as the sole grantor on a project.

Rick says one of the most effective projects funded by the committee has been one on the Cle Elum River.

Rick Martinson represents Northern Wasco County PUD on the McNary Fisheries Compensation Committee. He says the committee welcomes grant applications from state agencies, private entities, and individuals. Photo Courtesy of Rick Martinson

“They did a habitat restoration project, where they placed a bunch of engineered logjams and structures using a very expensive helicopter company out of Portland,” he says. “It’s expensive but extremely fast and very benign to the environment, as they don’t have to use heavy equipment to place the logs. Within hours of some of the structures being placed, they had fish utilizing the habitat. I think that’s one of our better ones.”

Rick says the project also successfully opened 5 stream miles of side-channel habitat and reconnected about 240 acres of riparian floodplain on a 2-mile stretch of the Lower Cle Elum River. Beavers have already moved into restored side channels, increasing habitat complexity within the project area.

Natural processes are expected to further create habitat benefits for spawning and rearing steelhead, spring chinook, coho, sockeye, bull trout, rainbow trout, lamprey, and other native fish species and wildlife species of the Lower Cle Elum River ecosystem.

The committee has funded many types of projects.

“We’ve had quite a variety of everything, from habitat restoration to habitat restoration guidebooks,” Rick says.

Other committee projects include tracking lamprey and juvenile salmon with tags, beaver relocation, construction of a cold water refuge, irrigation diversion screen work, and fish passagework.

To date, the committee has awarded $2.9 million in grants for 23 projects. The fund has about $600,000 unencumbered funds available.

If you have an idea for increasing production of anadromous fish above McNary Dam, contact Rick Martinson by email.
For more information and application forms visit the McNary Fisheries Compensation Committee website.