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Salmon Trucked Upstream : Northwest Bakes Uneasily in a Dry, Endless Summer

October 29, 1987|TAMARA JONES | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — Water is so scarce in the usually soggy Northwest that salmon are being trucked upstream and a TV crew had to use a fire hose to shoot a rain scene in Portland.

While "water police" patrol Seattle in search of green lawns, wet driveways and clean cars--evidence of illegal watering--officials across the region fear that restrictions may turn into rationing if the worst drought in nearly a century does not loosen its grip soon.

Already, the five-month-long dry spell has threatened the livelihood of lumberjacks, fishermen and even mushroomers, as forests turn brittle and rivers shrink. An unfamiliar pall of smog hangs over urban areas such as Seattle, where frequent rains usually rinse the sky clean.

The stubborn streak of sunshine is regarded with both awe and resentment.

"It's wild to be running around and see people in the grocery store wearing shorts," said public utilities spokeswoman June Zamjahn in nearby Tacoma.

"You hear people saying it's like 'The Twilight Zone.' "

The endless summer here is being blamed on a persistent ridge of pressure just off the coast that is diverting storms north to Alaska and sometimes down to Southern California.

The resulting drought area stretches from the west coast of Oregon across Washington and into British Columbia.

Rain historically is so synonymous with the Northwest that Seattle dwellers call themselves mossbacks. They see the sun an average of 56 days a year--enough, they joke, to make them rust instead of tan.

Seattle's average rainfall, from June through October, is 8.1 inches. This year has brought only 1.8 inches.

To the south, California is going through its ninth driest year this century, but state Department of Water Resources officials have not classified the problem as a drought. "We've got 4.7 million acre feet more in storage this year than in 1976 (the last drought period)," spokesman Al Jones said. Even so, some Sierra Nevada foothill communities are short of water because they depend upon local supplies, and wary Los Angeles water officials are pushing conservation.

Fish Helped Upstream

In the Northwest, rivers have fallen so low that hundreds of thousands of salmon at the mouth of Puget Sound may not be able to reach state hatcheries or swim far enough upstream to spawn.

"Fish need water, obviously, and right now we almost don't have any. We have 100-year record-low flows," said Duane Phinney, habitat management chief of Washington's Department of Fisheries.

To help nature--and the $50-million salmon industry--the state is digging trenches in shallow streams and rivers and releasing precious dam water in stingy increments to augment the flow of the currents.

When that doesn't work, salmon are netted, put into special tank trucks and driven upstream.

"The cost is minimal, maybe a few hundred dollars," Phinney said, "and we'd rather not do it, but sometimes we have to help them out."

The Department of Wildlife staged a fish lift when the water fell dangerously low in a lake inhabited by a species of fresh water salmon. The fish were moved by helicopter to a nearby reservoir.

"If we could teach them to walk, it'd save a whole lot of work," said Terry Rudnick of the Department of Wildlife.

The worries don't end when the salmon make it to the spawning grounds. The fish normally lay their eggs in gravel near the edge of a stream, but the shallow water this year has sent them to spawn in mid-channel, where winter floods could destroy the nests.

"The effects aren't really going to be felt till three or four years from now, when the cycle is complete and the young salmon should be returning to spawn," Phinney said.

The drought has idled thousands of lumberjacks, while logging in the tinder-dry woods is suspended.

"It's having a very, very serious impact," said Joe McCracken, president of the Portland-based Western Forests Industry Assn., which represents about 100 small sawmills and plywood manufacturers in the Northwest.

"The price of lumber is going right through the roof," McCracken said. "All summer long, there have been some restrictions on logging. Now the entire state's almost shut down, and you hear of more and more mills closing."

The trouble is twofold, since this is the time of year when sawmills stockpile logs to be processed over the winter, when bad weather halts logging operations.

Oxbow Tavern Talk

On Washington's usually rain-swept Olympic Peninsula, the drought dominates conversation in the Oxbow Tavern as woodsmen nurse their beers.

"The forests are so dry that one spark from a chain saw could send the whole thing up in smoke," said Gene Ward, who owns a small mill in Humptulips.

"The weather's been gorgeous," he continued. "Blue skies. Usually we only see that two, three days a year.

"But blue skies don't do us any good."

Christmas tree farmers are worried that the drought could keep the woods shut and delay harvesting planned for mid-November, when the evergreens are cut for overseas markets.

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