In its November 1948 report on dam operations and future plans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers outlined a $20 million plan to build fish ladders, irrigation screens and fish hatcheries and to improve spawning and rearing habitat for salmon and steelhead, all focused on the on the lower Columbia River. The impacts of dams on salmon and steelhead that spawned in the upper Columbia River Basin would be addressed by “developing the salmon runs in the lower tributaries to the highest level of productivity,” according to the report.
This was the beginning of the Lower Columbia River Fishery Development Program, which would focus on producing fish in lower-basin hatcheries — downstream of Grand Coulee Dam — to compensate for losses in the upriver runs. The 1948 report committed the Corps to “conserve salmon and other migratory fish to the maximum practicable extent,” provide “minimum interference” with fish and wildlife habitat and use “the best possible means” of salmon and steelhead passage at the dams.
This was an important development in the history of salmon and steelhead conservation efforts in the Columbia River Basin because it enabled closer cooperation between state and federal fish and wildlife agencies and allowed federal money to flow to the states for specific conservation work, something that had not been possible previously.
The program had six parts, including improvements to spawning and rearing habitat for fish and the creation of salmon sanctuaries in all Columbia River tributaries below McNary Dam. The sanctuaries never were created — sanctuaries in Oregon effectively were killed by the state Legislature; Washington’s sanctuary bill was overturned by the state supreme court. The hatchery part of the program quickly became the most important part. Fully half of the budget for the program went to hatcheries in the 1950s, nearly 80 percent by the 1980s. Clearly, the preferred means of dealing with the impacts of dams on upriver salmon was to mass-produce them in the lower river — below the dams.
Fisheries scientist Jim Lichatowich writes in his 1999 book Salmon Without Rivers, A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis, that the government’s plan to transfer upriver stocks to lower-river hatcheries “. . .treated salmon management on the Columbia as a large agricultural enterprise, a massive extension of the earlier attempts to ‘till the waters’ for the benefit of humans.”
Federal funding for hatcheries in the lower Columbia program, provided through the Mitchell Act, continues to this day although the federal hatcheries, like others in the Columbia basin, steadily are undergoing a paradigm shift in management away from mass-production to production techniques that use hatcheries in conjunction with habitat improvements to rebuild naturally spawning fish runs.