Associated Press Controversial barging begins at Bonneville Dam

KENNEWICK, Wash. - A half million young salmon and steelhead continued their headlong swim to their new home in the Pacific Ocean on Wednesday after a brief assist from the hand of man.

The release below Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River east of Portland, Ore., marked the start of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers program at McNary Dam to collect and barge juvenile fish around hydroelectric dams.

With the region's rivers shrunken by drought and water temperatures already rising, the corps on Tuesday began its controversial fish barging program at McNary Dam 45 days earlier than usual.

On the Snake River, barges began transporting fish from collection sites at three dams in early April. Before that, some fish had been collected in tanker trucks and driven to the release point.

"River passage conditions are not going to be beneficial for fish," said Dave Hurson, biologist in charge of the corps' Walla Walla District barging program. "If we can transport 3 million fish (from McNary), I think we'd really be doing good."

The corps spends $3 million a year on its transport program, which includes trucking fish from lower Snake River dams starting in late March.

At McNary's $18 million juvenile fish transportation center, a collection of pipes, catwalks and raceways route salmon around the powerhouse and into barges.

From there, the fish float downstream on the barges above their adult relatives, who are steaming upriver to spawn in record numbers this spring.

To keep more water available for power generation, most dams are not releasing water over spillways to help outbound fish float to the ocean this year.

Foes of the corps' fish transportation programs remain vocal.

"It is … the main prop in the federal government's salmon restoration stage show," said Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of sport and commercial fishing groups. "As long as the show continues, people can perhaps be distracted from the fact that behind the curtain, salmon are going extinct."

Critics question the fitness of barged fish to return and spawn.

"Salmon recovery will only come when the fish have a healthier river system," said Autumn Hanna of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Twenty-three years of silly schemes like this have cost Americans more than $3 billion while making things worse for salmon."

A low water year in 1977 prompted federal agencies to substantially expand the transport program. That was the only other year on record when water flows were as low as they are predicted to be this year.

In 1977, in-river fish survival was virtually nil, the National Marine Fisheries Service said.

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