In search of our lost salmon, part 2: whats in the water?

Below is the second installment in a six-part series on fishing inspired by Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. Read part one.


Christmas morning I found myself kneeling on Uncle Mark’s leather couch, surrounded by regional atlases, and furiously scribbling notes while Mark talked about his time with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). It was the most words I’ve ever heard him speak at one time; so from now on, I know that the two sweet spots for conversation with Mark are water issues or mountain biking in Moab, Utah.

Mark explained waterways like this. All segments of streams in the United States are supposed to have beneficial use (categories of beneficial use include drinking water, recreation, salmon spawning, etc). In Idaho, Fish & Game and the DEQ assigned regions for salmon spawning that were approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but the water temperature and other criteria necessary for spawning did not always suit the salmon. Several environmental factors will determine whether or not a stream segment or reservoir is conducive to salmon spawning, three of which are dissolved oxygen levels, sediment erosion and water temperature.

If, for example, a large amount of phosphorous washes into a particular region, it will facilitate an algae bloom in shallow, sunlit water. As the algae dies off during certain times of the year it collects at the bottom of the river and depletes the oxygen levels—killing fish. Phosphorous enters the water systems in various ways; by “point sources” such as McCall’s water treatment plant that used to discharge directly into the Payette River during the mid-1990’s, or by non-point sources such as logging operations, agriculture, residential septic tanks and often by storm water.

Dealing with waste water

In an effort to recover the water quality in the Western boundary of the Idaho Batholith area for the sake of reasonable beneficial use, the state of Idaho’s DEQ wrote Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) allocations for certain inputs such as phosphorous. The TMDL, which is approved by the EPA, establishes mandatory reduction levels of phosphorous for point sources, and voluntary reduction levels for non-point sources. During the 1990s, that same water treatment plant in McCall was ordered to cease discharging into the river and to build a storage pond from which to pump treated water to irrigate agricultural land.

At the same time the neighboring towns of Tamarack, Donnelly and Gold Fork, which relied on septic tanks for wastewater, were ordered to halt installation of any more septic tanks. This order stifled development since no new homes could be built without a septic tank. To get around this problem, the townships of Tamarack, Donnelly, and Gold Fork formed the North Lake Recreational Water & Sewer District and installed water and sewer lines. Removing hundreds of septic tanks reduced the phosphorous levels, and allowed Tamarack the infrastructure to develop a giant ski resort.

Although the phosphorous levels were greatly reduced by regulating the wastewater treatment plant and the voluntary removal of septic tanks, the impact of agricultural runoff and logging operations still needed to be considered. Many ranchers allow their cattle to graze and drink along the banks of streams feeding into the Payette or Salmon Rivers, leading to increased sediment filled with phosphorous. Some ranchers attempt to reduce levels of agricultural runoff with Best Management Practices (BMPs) but many of these cost a lot of money.

Fortunately, runoff from farms and ranches can be reduced in several affordable ways. These include vegetated buffers, sediment ponds, no till farming and riparian fencing.  In the early 1990’s, cities nationwide with human populations between 10,000 and 100,000 were required to obtain storm water permits from the EPA. McCall, with a population of about 2500,doesn’t have to seek a storm water permit- yet.

Similar vegetative buffer zones (stream protection zones) are recommended for loggers. Back in the 1940s and 50s, loggers clear cut along the banks of the South Fork of the Salmon River. Not only does logging without proper protection zones increase sediment runoff, it also removes shade from salmon spawning beds. This can increase the water temperature, which can be deadly for salmon. These days, forest fires appear to be more responsible for erosion than logging.  (The Idaho Forest Practices Act establishes rules for BMPs and stream protection zones.)

The above practices have yielded measurable results in the improvement of phosphorous runoff and erosion control in the Idaho Batholith region- at least to levels that allow fish to live. Now that we know BMPs do work for this purpose I wonder if more farming operations will adopt them voluntarily for the sake of water quality and conserving fish populations.

Mark told me, “If you want to know more about this stuff, you should talk to Don Anderson. He used to head up the fisheries for the Idaho Fish & Game before he retired. I’ll give him a call right now.”

“No. You don’t have to do that. It’s Christmas Day!” But Mark was already calling Don at home and making plans for me to go visit the next morning. I spoke to Don briefly as well, and he sounded just as excited as Dad when I told him some of the questions I have.

Keep asking questions!

Uncle Mark is known for his taciturn style of communication. Later, Dad said, “Mark told you more about water in one day than he’s told me in 30 years. Every time I ask him about water treatment, he just tells me, ‘It’s complicated’.”

And it is complicated, but don’t let that stop you from asking questions.

I was able to catch up with one of Mark’s colleagues, Craig Shepard, who is retiring from the DEQ this week. Craig has been with the DEQ for 30.5 years and he was able to corroborate the information Mark shared with me. I grew up with Craig’s kids in Boise. From kindergarten through the third grade we wreaked havoc on our neighborhood. Craig’s son, Darryl, and I were Dennis the Menace and Pippi Longstocking with fake fishing rods made of sticks and found twine. If we weren’t shrieking through the streets on our bikes, we were catching frogs in the creek in my back yard, reenacting “Goonies” in Darryl’s treehouse, or building precarious forts in the housing development lot behind the fence. We had no concept that as we were freely playing the way kids are meant to play, the salmon were not freely swimming the way they are meant to swim for the survival of their own species.

Unlike Paul Greenberg, the point source that flooded my mind with questions on this topic in the first place, my fishing holes as a kid were already stocked with human-raised fish. Greenberg remembers the ebb and flow of Atlantic wild fish migrations, but the fishing trips of my youth amount to the ecological equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Rather than having to learn the laws of nature like Greenberg did, little kids like me only have to call the local hatchery to find out the stocking schedule. Realizing this makes me think of Easter Sunday, when I was three. Mom and Dad took us out to the vast back yard to hunt for Easter eggs that should have appeared mysteriously overnight, but it turns out they put them within reach on purpose. Good intentions aside, that really does take the fun out the whole thing.  Those fish I caught were put there for my hook. The tributaries and reservoirs here in the Columbia River Basin are part of an ongoing eco-project requiring constant oversight and monitoring, in large part so fishermen can catch fish.

What really confuses me is why stocking is still necessary? If grazing farms and developers and loggers have contributed to the restoration of salmon, and if Fish & Game regulates what and how many a fisherman can take home, why hasn’t the population reached optimum levels naturally? What’s the missing link that keeps the fish from flourishing in a restored habitat? For these questions, I’m really grateful Don Anderson was available during the holidays.

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