"If you're a little salmon you could live under there, or live under there — even right here!"
Jeff Peterson got their attention. He guides several kids' eyes to a small plastic tree that have been strategically placed over an artificial river-course carved with fine shavings of recycled pop bottles.
It's the Living River Exhibit in action at the Sawtooth Salmon Festival in Stanley, Idaho, on a cool weekend in August. Even with smoke in the valley and the region's largest fire burning its way northward, kids, parents, grandparents, and locals found time to attend the 10th annual Salmon Festival in this tiny mountain town. Sponsored by Idaho Rivers United, the festival is a unique opportunity to see returning salmon and learn about their quest for survival.
The event is timed for the return of adult Chinook salmon, who travel 800 to 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean to spawn and die in their native tributaries off the Salmon River. This year, about 160 fish returned to the upper reaches of the Salmon.
Since mid-morning dozens of kids have crowded around the Living Rivers model, which contains a continuous stream of water and a dynamic riverbed of artificial sand. Miniature farm animals, trees, sticks, and white stones are scattered across the 3- by 8-foot trough.
The Bureau of Reclamation's Jeff Peterson, a civil engineer by trade, is working a crowd of kids. They're learning about salmon habitat, whether formed naturally by the river's hand or with a little help from engineers like Peterson.
"Salmon are too big to go into this tank — especially this one!" cries out nine-year-old Sara McGlynn.
"You're right," says Peterson, "but it's fun to make homes for them, huh?"
Sarah, visiting from Seattle with her mom, studied salmon just before school broke for the summer. She and her five-year-old brother Seamus have dug several side channels in the model.
"We're building and we're collecting the rocks and putting them here," she explains. "It creates little places for the salmon to hide. Then, the rocks will be a little place for them to spawn in."
Reclamation is just one of a dozen participants in the festival along with several environmental groups and the U.S. Forest Service; all feature salmon-themed activities.
For Reclamation engineers and biologists, the festival is an opportunity to engage kids in river dynamics and demonstrate habitat improvement projects that the agency is working on with partners including states, tribes, other federal agencies, non-profits, local organizations, and landowners.
Just downstream a dozen miles is the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River. Ten months ago, Reclamation and their partners set out to build side-channel habitat in a heavily dredged section of the Yankee Fork. For 25 years a large dredge sifted gold from the riverbed and left a large scar on the rivers' ecosystem.
Today, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Trout Unlimited, the Salmon-Challis National Forest, three state agencies, Bonneville Power Administration, and Reclamation are working with private landowner J.R. Simplot Co. to revitalize this stretch of river. Work to build new side channel habitat will begin on Sept 6.
For salmon supporters and residents the festival had lots of technical information, but the Living River model really helps explain the big picture.
"Adults like to play with this model, too," explains Peterson. "They see the connection with the Yankee Fork and the need to regain habitat for juveniles. They see how the large woody debris in the river gets formed into valuable habitat — we have the chance to explain that less wood should be taken out of the river," says Peterson.
Meanwhile, kids are hanging on the edges of the river model. The artificial river demonstrates, in a couple of minutes, something that would take all summer to develop in the real world.
"Kids like to build log jams. They like to get their hands in there and build side channels, add vegetation and cover, and watch how the water flows. It's more than just a sand box!" says Peterson.
Bonneville Power Administration is funding the Yankee Fork Rehabilitation Project which will help meet commitments in the 2008/2010 Federal Columbia River Power System Biological Opinion issued by NOAA. Learn more about the project at http://www.usbr.gov/pn/programs/fcrps/thp/yf/index.html.
Released: September 06, 2012