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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Chilly Waters for Salmon

Air Date: Week of

At 40 thousand dollars per salmon, the new 80 million dollar water project at the Shasta Dam in California will provide a chilled waterway to help restore the Chinook salmon which once thrived there in the days before the dam was built. William Drummond reports from northern California.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. By December, workers in northern California will put the finishing touches on a major facelift of the Shasta Dam. They've built a huge system of steel doors that will divert cooling waters into the Sacramento River, so that downstream endangered Chinook salmon can spawn. The project has cost the Federal Government more than $80 million. It has been welcomed by wildlife conservationists, but they also warn that this is only a down payment. There's a lot more to be done, they say, to rescue salmon from the hazards created when the Shasta Dam was built more than 50 years ago. William Drummond explains.

(Diver conversing by radio with the surface)

DRUMMOND: A diver talks by radio as he works underwater in Shasta Lake at the north base of California's Shasta Dam. He's putting into place a part of a latticework of steel that engineers have modestly dubbed "the temperature control device". But it's grander than its name implies. It's taller than the Statue of Liberty and weighs 500 tons. It looks like a gigantic submerged ice tray standing on end. When the last of this network of steel louvers is finally bolted in place by the end of the year, it will correct a 50-year-old flaw in the dam's design. Environmentalists like John Mertz, chairman of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust, says it's high time.

MERTZ: That frankly should have been done to begin with. It was done at Lake Orville, Orville Dam, and when they built the dam and somebody was thinking ahead there and they missed the boat during World War II, for some reason, on Shasta.

(Water gushing)

DRUMMOND: Ten years in the making from 1936 to 1946, Shasta Dam at the headwaters of the Sacramento River is one of the great hydroelectric projects of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Its purpose was simple: to get people back to work during the depths of the Depression and to generate electric power. But its creators overlooked some important environmental consequences of this dam.

(Electrical buzzing)

DRUMMOND: Shasta Dam produces enough electricity to light San Francisco. But the original water intakes for hydroelectric power were set so high up in the structure's face they sucked in warm currents from the lake's surface. Salmon eggs below the plant died when the warm waters flowed downstream after leaving the dam's power plant. The new temperature control device will use a system of steel doors to divert chilly waters from the depths of Shasta Lake to the intake opening in the power plant. Joe Wadsworth, project manager for Oceaneering, one of the contractors here, says once the device is completed, dam operators will be able to adjust the intake water as though they had a thermostat.

WADSWORTH: What they would do is close some gates here and open some ones that draw the water from a deeper part, and that will bring in deeper water which is colder. And it will come through the turbines...

DRUMMOND: In the past, the passage of warm water down the stream over prime salmon spawning grounds was devastating. Salmon eggs cannot tolerate temperatures much above 56 degrees. But in the midst of a prolonged drought in the winter of 1976 to 77, the temperature rose to 64 degrees and thousands of salmon died. The deadly temperature rise came on top of an assortment of threats to the salmon population such as pollution, degradation of habitat, and water diversions for agriculture.

MERTZ: What we were having here was, as the winter run dropped in population it became very obvious that we needed cold water to maintain basically their existence, and of course what added impetus to this was the drought cycle that we were in at the time as well.

DRUMMOND: John Mertz's Sacramento River Preservation Trust has worked since 1984 to protect salmon on the 350-mile Sacramento River. But at first its efforts had little impact. In the late 1980s California entered another prolonged drought and the salmon population fell to the point that the fish was declared an endangered species. The Bureau of Reclamation responded by shutting down the power plant in hot weather, and instead spilling cold water into the river through a tunnel. It was a good move for the fish but costly for the government.

MERTZ: When you're letting the water out of that lowest outlet you're bypassing the turbines, so no power's being generated. And so therefore no revenue as a consequence of that power generation is being generated. It's that simple.

DRUMMOND: The government lost an estimated $35 million in revenue in the next 8 years due to the loss of electricity sales. When losses reached that scale, the government began thinking about a big hardware solution to the salmon issue. That's when it came up with the temperature control device.

(Metallic sounds, echoes, turbines)

DRUMMOND: At about $80 million, the makeover will cost taxpayers roughly $40,000 per Chinook salmon in the river. Construction manager Joe Wadsworth says the government's action to protect the salmon was expensive, but he says it will prove cost effective.

WADSWORTH: The fish were declared an endangered species. They have to take measures to protect it and they've been doing that for 8 years, and they've been losing power revenues in the process of that. This project pays itself off in a very reasonable amount of time.

DRUMMOND: At Shasta Dam the Federal Bureau of Reclamation's guide is Jerry Kuzmansky, who expresses the government's official view that the temperature control device will permanently protect the salmon, and it will keep the power plant humming.

KUZMANSKY: The water coming out of the power plants will be cold. The Chinook salmon, when they spawn, they'll benefit from the cold water, and the people will benefit from electricity. It's a win-win situation; man wins and the environment wins.

DRUMMOND: Ten years ago the Sacramento River Preservation Trust called for a 20-part program to restore the health of the salmon fishery in the river. The ambitious plan called for such measures as improvements to the fish hatchery on the river, placing fish screens over the irrigation stations that pump huge amounts of water out of the river, and halting the practice of dumping toxins and pollutants from mining operations. Cold water was a very big demand, and Trust chairman John Mertz says the temperature control device is a welcome first step by the government.

MERTZ: I think it's added impetus to all those other things that we identified. It's not going to just be one element but a mix of elements that will bring back the salmon on the Sacramento River.

DRUMMOND: The temperature control device is expected to go on line in December, but it won't be until next spring at the earliest before biologists will know if the Chinook salmon have benefited from the project. For Living on Earth, I'm William Drummond.



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