DAMS DESIGNED FOR FUN PLAGUE FISH Rock-Dam Builders Often Don't Know Fish Need to Move Freely

By Landers, Rich | The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), August 28, 2016 | Go to article overview

DAMS DESIGNED FOR FUN PLAGUE FISH Rock-Dam Builders Often Don't Know Fish Need to Move Freely


Landers, Rich, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)


Piling rocks across a small stream on a hot day to create a private forest wading pool may seem harmless to hikers and campers, but fish have a different point of view.

Recreational dams can block a fish's daily needs for migrating or moving to feeding areas and cooler water.

"These last few years, with air temperatures higher earlier, the 'normal' rock dams load has exploded in Washington," said Teresa Scott, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife drought coordinator.

Building dams out of rocks and logs across a creek to form a swimming hole violates state hydraulics regulations. Left in place, even a small dam can inhibit young fish movements and migrations and can cause flooding during storms or even months later during runoff.

In some cases, spawning chinook salmon have been completely blocked in certain tributaries, said Perry Harvester, the agency's regional habitat program manager in Yakima.

"Because there's such a problem in the upper Yakima Basin, we have a small regional crew funded mostly by commercial fishing dollars and all they do most of the summer is educate the public and remove dams by the dozens.

"The majority of people we contact are just having fun and don't realize they're blocking fish runs."

Most of the dams are on streams near campgrounds.

"It's an annual problem," he said.

In some cases, the dams are built by poachers to ambush adult salmon, steelhead or bull trout heading upstream to spawn, he said.

"People have been making recreational dams forever, but for whatever reason, they have become much more of a problem in the last six years or so," said Harvester, who's surveyed nearly all of Washington's salmon-steelhead streams in the Columbia Basin during his 30-year career.

A Spokane Mountaineers volunteer trail maintenance crew had a some unexpected work to do on a recent Idaho mission to Marie Creek Trail, which is north of the Wolf Lodge area at the northeast end of Lake Coeur d'Alene.

The volunteers usually deal with natural forces such as clearing new brush growth, sawing out downfall and restoring paths through landslides, said club trail work coordinator Lynn Smith. Human-made dam projects add another chore to the list.

"It was a bank-to-bank construction that looked way more involved than just kids rearranging some stream rocks on a family hike," Smith said.

"At this time of year the water is lower and warmer with less oxygen, so the fish we saw in the wide shallow pool needed to be able to move around to find optimum conditions.

"Plus, during spring runoff, both banks would be eroded as water is forced around the dam."

The volunteers waded in to scatter the rocks and restore the natural course of the creek.

"We did place some stepping stones, but left the stream free- flowing, not strained through the rock dam," Smith said.

Scott said Washington fisheries staffers "and partners such as the Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group monitor for rock dams in the upper reaches of East Side streams, but there's never enough staff capacity to get to all the likely locations. …

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