CA WATER COMMISSION: Feather River Fish Hatchery

The Feather River Fish Barrier Dam forces fish to take the fish ladder on the left side at the Feather River Fish Hatchery in Oroville, California on September 22, 2018.
Photo by Kelly M. Grow/ California Department of Water Resources

The Feather River Fish Hatchery is a State Water Project facility that was built in conjunction with the construction of Oroville Dam.  The fish hatchery is a joint operation of the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Water Resources. The Department of Fish and Wildlife conducts the fish spawning, rearing, and stocking activities, while the Department of Water Resources maintains and funds the hatchery. The hatchery is also an important fixture of the local economy by supporting recreation and tourism.

At the April meeting of the California Water Commission, Eric See, DWR’s Chief of the FERC License Coordination Branch, and Jason Kindopp, Chief of the Feather River Program Section within the Division of Environmental Services, briefed the commissioners on the history and operations of the Feather River Fish Hatchery, the Spring-run Chinook Hatchery Genetic Management Plan, and potential impacts of the management plan on the operations of the State Water Project.

The State Water Project is the largest state-run water project in the United States; it serves 25 million residents at least a portion of their water supplies as well as irrigates over 750,000 acres of farmland.  The State Water Project has a variety of facilities: 32 storage facilities, 16 pumping plants, 4 pumping-generating plants, 5 hydroelectric plants, about 700 miles of canals and pipelines – and 1 fish hatchery.

The Feather River Fish Hatchery is part of the Feather River Project and was constructed in the 1960s at the same time as Oroville Dam.  Construction of the dam blocked the upstream passage of salmon and steelhead on the Feather River, so the hatchery was built to mitigate the loss of spawning and salmon production that would occur.  It an important component and is one of the original features of the State Water Project.

The Oroville Dam project is a multipurpose project, providing flood control, storing water, and releasing water to manage salinity in the Delta, as well as providing fish and wildlife benefits.  Oroville Dam also has hydroelectric power generation, which requires a license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or FERC and all of the recreational and environmental programs are codified in the FERC license as requirements.

The map shows the location of the hatchery in relation to the ocean.  The Feather River is a tributary to the Sacramento River which flows into the Delta and then out San Francisco Bay to the ocean; that’s the path that the fish that are released from the hatchery will take to get out to the ocean, and the path the adults will take when they return.  The hatchery has steelhead and two runs of chinook salmon, fall-run and spring-run.

The slide is a picture of the Oroville area, showing the location of the fish hatchery on the right side of the river.  The dam on the lower right side of the photograph is Fish Barrier Dam; the fish migrate up the Feather River and encounter the dam.  On the upper side, there is a fish ladder where that the fish travel up for almost a mile to reach the hatchery.

Downtown Oroville are the buildings on the left-hand side of the river.  To the right of the hatchery, there’s an olive orchard, and county buildings as Oroville is the county seat for Butte County.  The location is popular spot for people to come down to the river; they can launch kayaks or canoes.  There’s an observation platform to view the river and a window area alongside the fish ladder so people can watch the fish as they move up the fish ladder.

The Fish Hatchery is really integrated into the makeup of the Oroville area,” said Mr. See.  “It’s right next to downtown and is really an integral part of the Oroville experience.  It’s an important component for tourism for the Oroville area.”

The Feather River Fish Hatchery is operated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, who manages the fish spawning and rearing operations, the feeding of the fish, and ultimately planting them in the river.  The fish are put in trucks and hauled to different locations on the Feather River, with some fish planted in San Pablo Bay.

The Department of Water Resources maintains the hatchery, which includes the parking lots and the canals, the pipelines, the raceways, the roadways, all of the electrical and mechanical equipment, the hydraulic equipment that lifts the fish up.  DWR also funds the entire operation, including operations and staff.

The Feather River Fish Hatchery is a major contributor to the ocean fisheries, particularly the fall-run chinook salmon.  Mr. See noted that there are five hatcheries in the Central Valley that contribute fish to fisheries, but the Feather River Fish Hatchery is the major contributor, supporting about 1/3 of the ocean fishery, which generates $350 million per year.  The hatchery also supports recreational fishing on the Feather River.  The Thermalito Afterbay and the Oroville Wildlife Area are also State Water Project facilities.

The location of the hatchery in the middle of Oroville provides a major recreation and tourism feature.  The hatchery is designed to be welcoming and open to the public, who can visit the hatchery during business hours.  “We work closely with the local chamber of commerce, the city of Oroville, and the downtown business association on using the hatchery for the community events in the Oroville area,” Mr. See said.  “In particular, the Oroville Salmon Festival was built around the hatchery and is one of the most popular events to occur in Oroville every year.”

As a whole, the State Water Project provides a lot of benefits to local tourism and recreation in the area,” Mr. See added.

Mr. See then noted that the Lake Oroville Visitor’s Center receives close to 200,000 visitors per year.  In 2016, just between May and September, the visitor’s center saw over 140,000 visitors, but the fish hatchery had over 322,000 visitors, more than double the number at the Visitor’s Center.

Jason Kindopp, Chief of the Feather River Program Section, then discussed some of the changes that they will be making at the facility for spring-run chinook salmon.  He noted that fall-run biological components.  While fall-run salmon are the mainstay of commercial and sport fisheries, spring-run chinook salmon are important as well.

The idea here is to move this program from a true mitigation program that was formed at the conception of the hatchery and Oroville Dam to more of a conservation program,” Mr. Kindopp said.

Maven note:  I sent an email to Mr. Kindropp, asking him what is the difference between a mitigation program versus a conservation program.  His answer is below:

There is no agreed upon or traditional definition of a “conservation” hatchery that I’m aware of, but our approach to the spring-run program at Feather is to take specific measures that favor recovery and protection of the ESU. Mitigation is still critical, and it is a requirement for us, but how you implement the requirement can steer you towards a production or conservation strategy. For spring-run at FR we have chosen “conservation” as our approach. This means we are not focused on a certain number of juveniles to produce, although we do have a target, but rather on how our program can be managed and adjusted to meet recovery objectives. This decision was primarily based on the ESA and CESA listing of spring-run, but also on the fact that this is not an important stock for harvest in either the ocean or inland fisheries. In this case, our selection of broodstock, our marking and release strategies, and all our monitoring are focused on gathering information and doing no harm to other stocks in the valley while slowly progressing toward the recovery of spring-run. If we don’t meet our short and long-term objectives (e.g. straying, % natural origin fish in broodstock, etc.) we will have to adjust the program to get there. We clearly realize that Feather River alone cannot achieve recovery of the CV ESU, but we can do our part to ensure that our practices do not create unnecessary challenges for the other stocks and by making important short and long-term adjustments to the program we feel that FR can be part of the long-term solution, and not a problem.”

A Hatchery Genetic Management Plan details how certain stocks at the hatchery will be managed to implement the scientific knowledge that’s been developed over the last 15-20 years.

Mr. Kindopp reminded that the federal Endangered Species Act prohibits take of any threatened or endangered species, and spring-run chinook at the Feather River Fish Hatchery are both state and federally listed as threatened.  “Any artificial propagation program is essentially considered take, so this plan is essentially our way of satisfying federal law to continue that propagation so the hatchery can be exempted once this plan is approved,” he said.

Central Valley steelhead are also federally listed; Central Valley fall-run chinook salmon are not listed, but DWR has agreed to also develop a plan as part of their FERC settlement agreement.  “The importance of the fall-run program is that it dovetails so much with the spring program, it’s critical that both programs have real clear plans on what they are trying to achieve in the next 20, 30, 50 years so we can implement them successfully,” Mr. Kindopp said.

He presented a timeline showing the development of the plan.  The Central Valley spring-run chinook natural populations were listed in 1999.  In 2005, the hatchery was included in that listing, and since about that time, they have been working with the Department of Fish and Wildlife and NOAA fisheries to develop the plan.  In 2018, the plan was submitted to NMFS; the plan will be reviewed by their science centers and go out for public comment, and if anything needs to be addressed in the plan, DWR will have the opportunity to do that.  The hope is it will be approved in the next year so they can start implementing the plan.

The Department of Water Resources led the completion of the spring-run chinook plan, and will lead the completion of the plans for steelhead and fall-run chinook, the special studies that will be needed, and provide budget control.  The Department of Fish and Wildlife is a key partner, managing the facilities and providing access to fish and sharing data which is necessary to complete the studies.  NOAA assists with the completion of the plans and is the regulator who will be regulating our implementation of the plan.

Mr. Kindopp went over the reasons for developing the plans.  He noted that clearly there is a federal requirement to do it, but they are looking at hatchery programs differently and taking into account the potential impacts of hatcheries over the last 50 years.  “The key here is that we move forward with a program that takes the best science into consideration but also makes sure we don’t impact other listed stocks.

The plan will be based on defined objectives for achieving goals, which include getting more natural origin fish in the hatchery brood stock, more natural origin fish on the spawning grounds, and reduction of straying.

Another goal is to eliminate the mixing of spring-run and fall-run, which has been a problem at this hatchery.  Mr. Kindopp explained that they are the only facility that has both spring-run and fall-run in the Central Valley.  The life history of the spring-run chinook salmon is that they arrive in April, May and June, and will hold there all summer; they won’t spawn until fall, which is also when the fall-run chinook salmon start arriving to spawn.

Since Oroville Dam and the Fish Barrier Dam were put in, those spring-run and fall-run spawn together in the lower river, so part of this is eliminating that mixing in the hatchery but also taking steps to eliminate that mixing in the river itself,” he said.

The plan outlines 18 standards that they are trying to achieve, things such as how many fish are produced and marking and release strategies.  “The concept with spring run chinook is that this isn’t a harvest program, it’s not a commercially important program, but it’s an important program to conserve,” he said.  “It’s an important that it contributes to recovery of the ESU and it doesn’t impact the ESU of Central Valley spring-run chinook.

The program will implement a new fish marking strategy.  Currently, all the spring-run chinook salmon are marked with a tag in their head and a clip on their adipose fin.  The fall-run chinook currently are marked only at a 25% rate, so 75% of the fall-run returning adult fish can’t be identified as either a hatchery fish or a wild fish, so they are mixed in with the spring-run broodstock.  So one of the new marking strategies will be marking all of the fall-run chinook.”

When the adults are returning, the spring-run will be separated from fall-run.  “All of this has a pretty significant monitoring component,” he said.  “When those adults return, we’re going to be monitoring what’s returning, and if what we’re doing is successful, we’ll have survival studies that look at how fish are surviving when they are released from the Feather River based on different actions we’re taking.  All of these will be wrapped up in a 5-year review, so every 5 years, we’ll be looking hard at what we’re doing and making sure we’re achieving our objectives.  And if we’re not, it doesn’t mean we’re in violation of our permit, it just means we need to sit down with our partners and our technical teams and agencies and look at what we’re doing and what we can do differently so we can achieve the objectives we set forth.”

There’s one significant and important standard that will be added once the FERC license is reissued which is a segregation weir that will separate spring-run from fall-run.  “The segregation weir concept will put a physical barrier in the Lower Feather River at a yet-to-be-identified site,” explained Mr. Kindopp.  “We’ve been doing planning and concepts of how that could work, but the idea here is the top right picture looks like a fence but it is laying on the surface of the water, and to the fish swim up to that, they are either allowed access past that or they are blocked at that point, so the spring run chinook would swim up to this, swim through, and go upstream.   We’d count their passage but we wouldn’t stop them.  And then at some point, in July, we would close that structure, and fall-run would come up to it and they would be stopped there.  So the spring run would have all that habitat to spawn without fall-run spawning on top of them.”

However, Mr. Kindopp noted that fall-run chinook salmon will no longer have volitional access to the hatchery.  “We will have to trap them at this location and truck them to the facility,” he said.  “It’s not an insignificant task but it can definitely be done.  However, it’s already garnered some attention from some NGOs and others that are concerned about the impacts to fall-run chinook so what we’re trying to do is make sure we balance all of those concerns.  We have to maintain the protection of the ESA listed species, but we want to make sure fall-run are successful as well.   It’s a critical part of our thinking as we move forward on all of these plans.”

Mr. Kindopp said it will also allow them to increase natural origin fish in the broodstock because fish can be collected at this location, fish that don’t normally go into the hatchery.  “It would allow us to expand all of the standards to be more aggressive achieving at conservation objective,” he said.

With respect to the potential impacts to the State Water Project, Mr. Kindopp said the plan was written to be independent of the State Water Project, but he acknowledged that when putting fish into the river, there could potentially be a request for pulse flows and other things to help survival.  “We’ve worked with DFW over the last couple of years, when we’ve had the operational flexibility to provide those pulse flows, but it’s not something we wrote specifically into the document; it’s just another tool we have available to us that might help survival and help the program be viable.  But it really depends on every year and what the watershed provides.”

There will be increased costs; marking the fall-run chinook salmon is not expensive, and the costs of monitoring and feedback area also not insignificant.  “Most importantly, there’s a lot of increased coordination, and it’s not an impact to the State Water Project, but it will require internally a lot of coordination with the Department of Water Resources, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and NMFS who is the regulator in this case.”

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