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Brian Gehring, The Bismarck Tribune, Published March 25 2012

Garrison Dam fish hatchery faces funding uncertainties

RIVERDALE, N.D. – After dodging a budget bullet a year ago, the national fish hatchery at the Garrison Dam is again facing funding uncertainties that could jeopardize the mission of federal hatcheries across the country.

The mission of the national fish hatchery system, established in 1871 by Congress, is to provide farmed fish as a replacement for native fish lost to natural or man-made forces such as dams.

Another year of budget uncertainty, coupled with needed repairs from last year’s flooding, means hatchery manager Rob Holm has to be creative.

A team of five volunteers from the Minot Air Force Base was at the hatchery recently, insulating, painting and doing general maintenance projects that have been on the back burner for several years.

Holm said the team leader contacted him, looking for a volunteering opportunity. “They’re willing to take on any project,” he said.

Already down two full-time positions that have yet to be filled, Holm has an extensive laundry list – a list five pages long, single-spaced – of projects needing attention.

“A lot of these projects have been on that list a long time,” he said.

Senior Airman Kayla Wilkinson of Ohio was one of the team members volunteering.

“When our team leader brought up the idea, it sounded good,” she said.

One of the immediate needs at the hatchery is to get the intake pumps restored at the spillway pond, Holm said.

Last year’s flooding washed out an embankment that held water. After the floodwaters receded, the intake pumps were left high and dry, with 21 feet of shoreline between the pumps and the water, Holm said. It’s going to take extending the pump system by at least 120 feet to reach the 6-foot depth needed to draw water that fills the hatchery’s rearing ponds, he said.

Holm said the best option over the long term would be to replace the embankment. He said he is working with the state Game and Fish Department and the Army Corps of Engineers to get the embankment back and bring the water back up.

The hatchery is working with three companies on bids on a short-term solution, which could include floating the pumps, he said.

The intake structure at the spillway pond is used to fill two-thirds of the hatchery’s rearing ponds, which are about the length of a football field away from the main intake, Holm said.

The intake has the capacity to draw 7,000 gallons of water a minute, he said. At that rate, it takes 11 days to fill the rearing ponds.

Greg Power, fisheries director for the Game and Fish Department, said the state is working with the hatchery to replace the embankment.

In the meantime, Holm and Power said it will take about $50,000 to get the rearing ponds filled for this year.

The embankment was washed out by the flooding, something that was unavoidable. It happened at a time, however, that Game and Fish has been managing more fishing waters than ever before after a wet cycle pumped up lakes across the state.

The Game and Fish Department provides roughly $250,000 a year for operations at the hatchery, where Holm operates on an annual budget of about $667,000.

It’s frustrating, Power said, but it’s something that Game and Fish and the Garrison hatchery have learned to work around for years.

Overall, the proposal is to reduce the total national fish hatcheries’ budget by $6.2 million.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he intends to look into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funding.

“We recognize the unique state-federal relationship between the North Dakota Department of Game and Fish and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hatcheries in Garrison and Valley City,” Hoeven said. “They share resources and work cooperatively to help ensure the outstanding quality of North Dakota’s fisheries.

“This is a cost-effective program, and we intend to check into how the USFWS is managing its funding and work to make sure the hatcheries are adequately supported so that they can continue the good work they’re doing in North Dakota,” Hoeven said.

Power said the premier fishing in North Dakota now is a result of a partnership that has worked well for years.

“This is a great example of how it should work,” Power said. The hatchery’s budget is a small line item compared to the overall budget of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the numbers bear that out when talking about the money generated by a fishing public, he said.

One study of the two hatcheries in Georgia showed retail sales associated with angler expenditures as a result of stocking by the hatchery amounted to more than $15 million per year. More than $4 million of that was for food, lodging and transportation. The total economic output was $28.8 million, a return of $37.20 for every dollar spent.

Holm said the hatchery has had requests for more than 9 million walleyes alone and time is tight.

The Game and Fish Department captures the prespawn fish and collects the eggs, the hatchery rears them and Game and Fish personnel stock them in lakes around the state.

The prime time for the pike spawn is in May, with walleyes later.

Holm said ideally he would like to get the young fish from the hatchery buildings to the rearing ponds by the third week in April.