State senators learned new details about efforts to overcome the backup generator failure that led to the deaths of an estimated 6 million fall Chinook at a South Sound salmon hatchery during a December windstorm.
During a work session this afternoon before members of Sen. Kevin Van De Wege’s Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee, three high-ranking WDFW officials again called the incident at Minter Creek Hatchery unacceptable and said that two investigations were launched this week into what happened.
They also said that the comanagers had been “wonderful to work with” in trying to backfill the loss with 2.75 million kings from two tribal hatcheries, along with fish from state and a technical college facilities.
The WDFW staffers who went before senators were Director Kelly Susewind, Fish Program Deputy Assistant Director Kelly Cunningham and Hatchery Division Manager Eric Kinne.
They described the events and fallout of Friday, Dec. 14 when around 5:30 p.m. the power went out at Minter as high winds raked the area.
According to them, when the 350 kVA generator didn’t immediately fire up, staffers soon figured out that batteries on the large diesel-fired power source weren’t charging.
So they yanked batteries out of vehicles at the hatchery to use instead to try to get water flowing again into the dozens of incubation trays where the young Chinook were rearing.
While salmon eggs can get by for awhile without flowing water, not so for the inch-long fish.
But when that failed too, crews discovered a cable on the generator had burned up.
After alerting WDFW’s “phone tree” and even calling the local fire department for help, a hatchery employee drove to a nearby auto parts store to buy cables and batteries.
Crews ultimately were able to get a small pump running and water again flowing into the trays before the generator was finally started more than two and a half hours after the power went out.
But by then then bulk of the damage was one.
The fish in the trays were poured into ponds at the hatchery and there’s a chance that some actually survived, but WDFW won’t know until they reach the “swim up” stage.
They said that 1.75 million of the replacement fish would be released in the Deschutes River, the other 1 million at Minter Creek.
Meanwhile, contractors began two separate investigations this week, one from an engineering standpoint about why the generator failed, and the other whether adequate emergency procedures were in place and how hatchery workers responded.
The three WDFW officials said they plan to revise statewide protocols and use the results of the investigation “to hold ourselves accountable for the tragic loss of the fish.”
The details on Minter were part of their larger presentation on state hatchery salmon and steelhead production, including how output has decreased since the late 1980s due to reforms, ESA listings and budget cutbacks, and the 24 million-salmon increase for orcas that WDFW hopes lawmakers will fund during this year’s legislative session.
Built into this biennium’s budget proposal from Gov. Inslee is also $75.7 million to upgrade the state’s hatcheries.
After hearing about the disaster at Minter, Sen. Christine Rolfes asked if backup generators had been checked at WDFW’s other facilities.
Cunningham answered that they are all tested monthly, but said that by chance one did fail to start at one in the Columbia Basin during a test the day before Minter’s wouldn’t kick in.
And worryingly, “full load” tests — meaning all power is turned off and everything has to be run on the generator — aren’t done at some because the systems and equipment are so untrusted, senators were told.