MILTON-FREEWATER — Spring Chinook salmon haven’t swum in the Walla Walla River basin since the 1900s, but the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation just broke ground on a long-awaited hatchery that could change that.

During a ground-breaking event at the South Fork Walla Walla Chinook salmon spawning facility outside Milton-Freewater on Friday afternoon, CTUIR Board of Trustees Vice Chair Jeremy Wolf explained that the spring Chinook hatchery, a more than $20 million project funded by the Bonneville Power Administration, is anticipated to open in the spring of 2021.

It could bring more than 2,000 adult salmon back to the Walla Walla Basin by 2025, he said. According to the BPA, it could eventually return 5,000 adult salmon to the basin each year.

“This is going to benefit the entire system of Walla Walla, and the whole state,” Wolf said.

It’s a project that has been a part of an overall comprehensive program related to the health of fish and water in the Walla Walla Basin for more than 30 years now. The site already has a spawning facility for salmon and steelhead released into the Umatilla Basin, and the addition of an onsite hatchery will allow the tribes to localize the egg-rearing process.

Gary James, Fisheries Program manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, remembers sitting down in the late 1980s during the initial conversations about opening a hatchery at South Fork Walla Walla.

James can recount how development in the 19th and 20th centuries resulting in reduced streamflow, habitat destruction and structural passage problems along the Walla Walla River contributed to the disappearance of the spring Chinook salmon, a traditional food source for tribes in the area.

“People were not thinking multiple-purpose,” he said. “Streams were de-watered, severe degradation of habitat took place.”

During the ground-breaking ceremony, Crystal Ball, executive manager for fish and wildlife at the BPA, said it was the administration’s duty to mitigate the effects that hydropower has on local rivers.

“Building a hatchery is one of the things we can do,” she said.

But before what James describes as the “development era” of the Milton-Freewater area, spring Chinook salmon in the Walla Walla Basin — Walla Walla translates to “many waters” or “little water,” James said — were plentiful. It was the first food to appear each spring, in every creek and river connected to the Columbia River, according to information on the tribes’ website.

Since then, the tribes have worked to secure funding for restoration projects around the area to help encourage the salmon back.

“It took us a long time, and we didn’t give up. This is part of our treaty rights,” said CTUIR Board of Trustees Chair Kat Brigham.

Spring Chinook hatched onsite will return to the South Fork Walla Walla River, Mill Creek and Touchet rivers in Washington.

The tribes issued a master plan for the hatchery project in 2013, and the BPA got behind the project a few years later.

James said that oxygen depletion in Oregon streams and rivers stalled the issuance of an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality permit that was needed to move forward with the hatchery.

‘We couldn’t do anything that would jeopardize oxygen in the water,” he said. “We provided information, and we monitored the basin area for a year.”

The permit was issued at the tail end of 2019.

According to the BPA, the new hatchery will feature egg incubation and full juvenile salmon rearing facilities, using Walla Walla River water.

Nearly 100 years after their disappearance from the Walla Walla Basin, will the salmon still know how to find their way back to the area to spawn after life in the ocean?

“Fish are so smart,” James said. “That’s why I got into this. They have so much know-how genetically.”

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