SEATTLE -- Construction crews are working feverishly on a new tribal fish hatchery, located just a short distance from the banks of the Elwha River, where the largest dam removal in North America will take place next year.
Removing the two dams has been a decades-long process, and officials are hopeful the new hatchery facility will boost a river that once hosted all five salmon species and steelhead.
"The facility is 65 percent complete at this point, and we're looking at a mid-May completion date," said Larry Ward, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe hatchery manager and fisheries biologist. "There are always issues when you go from design to construction, but everything is moving along."
The hatchery building itself has been erected, and the interior is still being finished, along with a shop and storage garage area.
The surface water pipeline that leads to the water treatment plant is completed, and the four rearing ponds were asphalted this past week.
There has been a series of concrete raceways constructed, and finishing touches are being done on them. All the electrical and fiber optics are going in right now, and circuitries are getting wired up and tested and will be done in about two weeks.
A fish ladder that leads to a brood pond area is being constructed, and will be connected to the river itself.
"There is a lot of the major construction stuff that has been completed with concrete work, and we are now working on the different components of the hatchery," Ward said.
Once all the work is finished, hatchery employees will have about a four-month period to troubleshoot with actual populations of fish in the hatchery.
"After the four-month period is over we will give the parks service the notice, and hopefully get their OK and initiate the hatchery," Ward said. "We'll continue the work during the dam removal to produce fish. The new hatchery facility will be pretty critical to have a place for fish refuge."
The hatchery plans to capture and move fish into the facility to get them out of harm's way from such things as sediment runoff.
The tribe's current facility has a broodstock program that raises yearling steelhead. Elwha steelhead are part of the Puget Sound steelhead population listed as "threatened."
Other fish the tribes raise annually are chinook, chum and coho, and they also plan to begin a pink salmon program in the new facility.
The new hatchery is a critical component of the Elwha River Ecosystem Restoration project, and is just one of the paths in the rebuilding process of fish returns.
Removing the two dams will restore it to a natural free-flowing place where all fish species, including the entire ecosystem, will have access to 70 miles of freshwater habitat. Currently, only the lower five miles of the river are available to fish.
"As these dams come out in the near future, hopefully the lessons we learn can be adapted to other dam-removal projects throughout the (United States) and the world," Ward said.