Hatcheries the ‘canary in the coal mine’ as drought extends across Southeast Alaska

Tens of thousands of juvenile king salmon are kept in cold water tanks at DIPAC’s largest hatchery in Juneau. The hatchery has had to move its fry out to net pens earlier than ever this year because of warmer water flowing from reservoirs. (Photo by Jacob Resneck/CoastAlaska)

A drought declaration for parts of Southeast Alaska has expanded to include Sitka and Juneau. That means most of Alaska’s panhandle is officially in moderate to severe drought.

There’s been weeks of beautiful blue skies. But fish hatcheries see a dark side to all this sunshine — diminishing water supplies.

Inside the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery owned by Douglas Island Pink and Chum (DIPAC), operations chief Brock Meredith shows the inner workings of the Juneau plant.

“When this facility is full, each one of these stacks of incubators have got about a million fry in them and this place sounds like Niagara Falls,” Meredith said.

It’s not quite Niagara Falls, but this hatchery — one of the state’s largest — does use a lot of water. Right now at least 6,000 gallons run through the plant every minute. And that can more than double in the summer.

Salmon fry need lots of cold, fresh water. But with warmer water flowing down from reservoirs, this year DIPAC had to moved the juvenile fish out to colder salt water in January — months earlier than ever before.

Meredith said there’s a lot of unknowns putting the young fish out to sea so early.

“It’s a little bit scary,” he said. “What kind of marine environment were they going to encounter when we put them in the net pens?”

Brock Meredith, operations manager at DIPAC’s Juneau hatcheries said Feb. 26 that the warming climate is challenging is posing new challenges. (Photo by Jacob Resneck/CoastAlaska)

Other hatcheries in Southeast Alaska are also watching for rain clouds as reservoir levels drop.

At Crystal Lake Hatchery near Petersburg, manager Loren Thompson said the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association hatchery is counting down how many days of water it has left.

“After 50 days it kind of looks like the end of the road for us,” Thompson said Wednesday by phone. “So hopefully something happens in between now and then.”

By “something” he means rain. Because if there’s isn’t significant rainfall soon the hatchery will have to relocate more than a million juvenile king and coho salmon.

“We don’t want to panic and, you know, we do something like that,” Thompson said, “and it’s going to be disruptive to the whole operation and to the fish as well.”

Scientists say the drought now consuming nearly all but the very northern reaches of Alaska’s panhandle has been a combination of factors.

“This is not something that just happened overnight,” said Aaron Jacobs, the National Weather Service’s lead hydrologist in Juneau. “This is a long duration event that’s been going on for two to three years now.”

In recent years, there’s been little rainfall in September and October — historically the region’s wettest months.

“And everyone loved it,” Jacobs recalled. “You know, everyone’s like hooting, hollering … it was nice and sunny and dry.”

But after several years of these patterns, lakes and reservoirs haven’t been able to recover. The impacts are now being felt in the big way.

Petersburg, Ketchikan and Wrangell are almost entirely burning fossil fuel for electricity as hydro dam reservoirs run low.

Juneau’s utility has also disconnected its “interruptible” customers — namely Hecla Greens Creek Mine and the downtown federal building — driving up energy costs for everybody else.

Getting the attention of federal drought monitors has been a challenge as most of Southeast is rainforest. Even hard hit areas in the southern end still reported about 100 inches of rain annually.

“That sounds like a lot for someone coming from from Utah,” Jacobs said. “But when their normal is 140 inches, well that that lack of 40 inches has a big impact.”

Federal hydrologist Aaron Jacobs at the National Weather Service’s Juneau office says traditional drought indicators don’t always apply to Southeast Alaska’s temperate rainforest. (Photo by Jacob Resneck/CoastAlaska)

Many of the national monitor’s short-term indicators are based on farm conditions such as soil moisture or even how green the foliage is.

The U.S. Drought Monitor that keeps tabs on conditions in Alaska and the nation. A delegation from the Lincoln, Nebraska-based National Drought Mitigation Center plans to visit Juneau this spring to refine its methods.

“Because we know that some of the traditional drought indicators do fall apart when you’re looking at different climates than what we’re used to in the continental United States,” Brad Rippey, a D.C.-based meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said by phone.

All this continues to concern hatchery managers. DIPAC is investing $1 million in refrigeration to chill its water because of lower snowpack. That would also allow it to reduce its water use by nearly 95 percent by cycling its water through the coolers, Meredith said.

Warmer weather brought on by climate change, he said, is forcing his hatchery is to rethink basic operations and driving up costs.

“I won’t go into the elephant in the room as to whether it’s human caused or, you know, in part or in full,” Meredith said. “But the fact is, it’s happening and it’s right in front of our faces here in Alaska.”

Climate change is a conversation that state and federal policy makers are reluctant to have.

“I’m saddened when I read that the new governor has nixed the climate change task force in the state of Alaska,” Meredith said. “We are the canary in the coal mine for the least for the for North America and probably these hatcheries are even more of a canary in the coal mine. I mean, you can you can definitely see it — it’s right in front of your face.”

The extended forecast for Southeast Alaska remains cold and clear with no rain in sight. That’s caused the National Drought Monitor to upgrade most of Southeast Alaska to moderate to severe drought.

Depleted reservoirs at hydroelectric plants means communities can expect to burn more diesel to generate power. And it’s introducing a phrase not often heard here: water conservation.