Last weekend I paddled on the North Santiam River for the first time. We put in below the massive Big Cliff dam and ran five miles down to Packsaddle County Park. A few hundred yards above the take-out we needed to portage around a 12-foot dam, part of the Minto trap. It’s a sloping dam, water sliding down at an even angle across the river, with a diversion for fish on river right. At the time I thought the concrete wall was just an inconvenience, later an irony, and later still a generator of many questions.
There is no way for the steelhead and salmon to progress naturally upstream from the Big Cliff dam. Technically speaking, the fish’s progress is halted five miles downstream of the dam because of the Minto dam and trap. It’s actually there because the fish can’t get upstream of the large dam.
At least there is a recognition that the fish should be above the dams. 46% of the fish’s natural habitat is no longer accessible because of dam construction. But to build a dam specifically to stop the fish in order to mitigate a problem caused by the dams upstream stopping the fish seems to be a rather ironic solution to me.
Minto trap is a satellite of Marion Forks Fish Hatchery. The Minto dam is the end of the road for the anadromous fish that would like to continue upstream. The trap doors are open in the spring and fall for the steelhead and chinook runs respectively, until the broodstock is collected. Fish passing through the trap travel through a concrete maze that looks like a watery staircase in a parking garage leading to Minto pond. Most of the fish arriving to the pond have been previously tagged, meaning they have already visited the hatchery. The remaining fish are collected for a truck ride above the dams. 10% of unmarked fish are added to the broodstock, the remaining are released to spawn naturally.
We are still uncovering layers of significance regarding the necessity of anadromous fish in the watershed. Science knows that they are necessary in the environment throughout all stages of their lifecycles. If they cannot proceed upstream to spawn, countless deficiencies in the ecosystem arise. The South Yuba River, the river of my previous hometown, lacked salmon in the part of the watershed where I lived. Great efforts are currently being taken to return the salmon. Although the South Yuba is beautiful and relatively clean, I don’t believe it can ever be considered a healthy river until it can support anadromous fish that had long been an integral part of a complex ecosystem. There, a formerly healthy self-maintaining river system now has a complex problem requiring a very complex solution because of the existing dams and the effects on the river they create.
The North Santiam’s anadromous fish have been returned to the watershed above the offending dams. But the way they are present is by no means natural, nor is it simple. I have to wonder, even if the fish are present, is the river actually healthy? By some measures you can say yes. But is it truly healthy?
At Minto pond, eggs are collected and artificially fertilized. As the eggs harden in water they get an additional ingredient to soak in – Iodophor. The slow release of iodine from the Iodophor makes it less toxic to the eggs than it would otherwise be, and less infected. The disinfected Iodophor soaked eggs are then transplanted to the Marion Forks Hatchery thirty-three miles upstream.
In the hatchery’s crowded tanks, juvenile fish orally receive antibiotics to prevent disease and control bacterial infections. Formalin is dispensed in water to control parasites and fungus on eggs and juveniles. I can accept disinfecting eggs with Iodophor - it seems to be really helpful with disinfecting homebrew equipment without adversely affecting the beer. I’m less inclined to be accepting of the antibiotics. I don’t like putting them into my own body, let along the bodies of things that I may eat; or bodies that may eventually die and enrich the riverbed with their nutrients. But I really don’t like the idea of Formalin. Isn’t that the nasty stuff that kept the frogs and rats of my biology and anatomy classes from molding?
Yes, indeed it is. Ruth Francis-Floyd at the University of Florida, in an article about the use of Formalin to control fish parasites, addressed some of my concerns: Formaldehyde is a carcinogen – don’t touch it. Formaldehyde is a noxious gas. Fumes can cause eye and respiratory irritation – don’t breathe it. Some people develop a sensitivity to Formalin – don’t let these people near the stuff. And that’s just for the people.
It’s horrible for ponds, and I assume rivers too if it gets that far. Formalin removes dissolved oxygen from the water, one of many indicators of a healthy river. It kills oxygen-producing algae, and then the dead algae further decreases dissolved oxygen levels. But I assume that the hatchery controls the oxygen levels in the tanks for the fish, and I further assume that the Formalin-enhanced water is not re-introduced into the river.
If the Formalin gets to cold, it’s so toxic it will kill fish on contact. If it gets too hot, toxicity increases too. What is the toxicity of Formalin when the water is ‘just right?’ This stuff is FDA approved. Personally, I’d like to have nothing to do with it.
Eventually the young Iodophor cleansed, antibiotic fed, Formalin swimming fish are released upstream from the dams just in time to run the gauntlet of anglers who have been eagerly awaiting their return. The Marion Forks Hatchery’s goal is harvest fish to mitigate the loss of the fish to anglers and to increase harvest opportunities due to lack of habitat. All of these fish have gone through a rather extensive ordeal for the purpose of being in the watershed to be harvested. Some of the young smolts make it through the anglers and the turbines lurking downstream and eventually to the ocean to hopefully return to complete the highly engineered hatchery cycle.
Is this a healthy system? Is it the best we can do with the situation we’ve created with erecting massive hydroelectric dams? I can’t believe that it is. But maybe it’s all we’ve got for now.