Cassandra Hotaling Hahn / Staff File photo
Ken Gillette, manager of the White River National Fish Hatchery in Bethel, shows some of the damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene in this November 2011 photo.
BETHEL — The tanks that are normally swarming with fish at the White River National Fish Hatchery in Bethel are empty. But the repairs needed after Tropical Storm Irene flooded the facility are almost done and officials say biologists should be able to start raising fish there again this spring.
The tanks that hold the fish have been scrubbed and disinfected both inside and out, the electrical system is mostly repaired, the wells that supply the fresh water for the facility have been cleaned and the pumps are being rebuilt. The layout of the hatchery has been changed in a way that experts hope will make it less prone to damage from future flooding.
“We’d be ready to turn on the pumps, as some of the stock-car racing fans may say, kick the tires and light the fires sometime by March or April,” said Wade Jodun, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s operations manager for the Northeast.
When Irene hit in August 2011, the White River overflowed its banks and left a trail of destruction. A number of communities up and downstream from the hatchery were devastated and it washed out several miles of Route 107 just upstream.
Floodwaters swept into some of the hatchery’s outdoor holding tanks, flushing thousands of hatchery-raised Atlantic salmon and other fish into the river. The flood also exposed the hatchery to invasive species such as rock snot, a non-native form of algae that can overwhelm rivers and streams.
The Fish and Wildlife Service closed the hatchery for repairs. Thousands of large Atlantic salmon brood stock were donated to Native American groups for use in ritual ceremonies while nearly half a million lake trout that had been intended for Lake Ontario and other locations were destroyed rather than risk that they could spread contamination. Some staffers were moved to other locations.
All told, the flood caused more than $5 million damage to the hatchery, just above the White River off state route 107. Given the complexities of funding and engineering the needed repairs, it could have taken up to five years to get it operating again, Jodun said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service found almost $3 million to help pay for the repairs, and repairing what was needed to get the fish operations moving again was made a priority over damage to roads, fences and other infrastructure.
“The stars just really aligned for us,” said Jodun.
Biologists still haven’t decided what kind of fish will be raised in the hatchery, but the topic will be discussed this month at a meeting at the hatchery that will also deal with other issues, said Dave Tilton, the manager of the service’s western New England fisheries operations.
“What to do with it is still developing,” he said. “It’s developing based on lots of conservations with our partners with the states of Vermont and New York.”
Among possibilities for the hatchery are raising lake trout and landlocked salmon for stocking in Lake Champlain or housing brood stock from state hatcheries, said Eric Palmer, the fisheries director for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. No final decisions have been made, he said.
“It’s just been conceptual discussion about what the partner states see as the value for that facility,” Palmer said.
Before Irene, Fish and Wildlife raised many of the more than 100 million Atlantic salmon stocked in Connecticut River tributaries in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont over the past several decades in hopes of restoring the fish to the watershed.
But last summer, the federal government abandoned that project because not enough salmon were living to adulthood and returning to the Connecticut River to justify the expense. The loss of the Bethel hatchery helped prompt the decision.
Jodun said the Bethel hatchery should be able to get back to about 75 or 80 percent of its capacity this year. It’s not expected to be back to 100 percent capacity until 2014.
Repairing the facility had kept the remaining staff busy and it has given them an opportunity to do things that had been needed for some time, hatchery manager Ken Gillette said.
“We’d like to see things get going, but we’ve got to do it and do it properly,” he said. “We’re all looking forward to it.”
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