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Apache trout and Apache Tribe face an emergency

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Hatchery trout in the White Mountains of Arizona – and members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe who raise and rely on these fish – have a new problem to contend with.

The 4,000-foot pipeline that supplies water to Alchesay National Fish Hatchery is literally breaking apart after nearly half a century of operation. “This is a quarter-inch thick steel pipeline, 24-inches in diameter that ruptured a small section two years ago (and was repaired at a cost of $427,000). This time most every spiral-welded seam is corroded and leaking and engineers say it’s no longer repairable,” said Phil Hines, project leader for the Alchesay-Williams Creek National Fish Hatchery Complex managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We’ve been fighting ongoing deterioration of the pipeline, buried six feet deep and running (twice) under the White River itself, for some time now, and while the hatchery is still operational, we don’t know how long that will last,” Mike Oetker, assistant regional director of fisheries with the Southwest Regional FWS office in Albuquerque, N.M. said.

The two-station hatchery complex on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona is known for its leading role in the recovery of the threatened Apache trout, as well as annually raising rainbow, brook, brown and cutthroat trout for stocking Indian waters in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.

“The trout raised there fuel an economic engine, not just for White Mountain Apache tribal members, but for 19 tribes and pueblos in Arizona and New Mexico,” said Craig Springer, editor of the FWS fisheries magazine, Eddies.

In a trickle-down scenario, complete disruption of the hatchery would heavily impact already restricted tribal economies. “This is a real big deal for the tribes,” Oetker said. “We put in a million operational dollars between the two hatcheries and we know from our economic research that every dollar we spend generates 19 dollars for the White Mountain community.”

In addition to the millions of dollars involved, more than 250 Native Americans are employed in some fashion as part of the operation that supports annual production of 1.2 million fish and represents the largest Indian trust recreational fishing program in the National Fish Hatchery System.

Employees of the White Mountain Apache Tribe Department of Fish & Wildlife Management are funded through license sales to fish for these trout, so not only would there be an impact on the community, there would be a direct impact on funding Apache Fish and Wildlife Management operations.

Here is the current status of the emergency operation. “We’ve got things stabilized for now, but contractors are telling us they are surprised the whole pipeline hasn’t failed,” Oetker said. Ordinarily up to 9,000 gallons of water a minute flow into the hatchery. Present flows have dropped to about 4,000 gallons and anything less than 3,500 (or a slower warm water flow with less oxygen) will kill fish.

“We’re talking half a million catchable fish here, so it’s a touch and go situation,” said Hines, who added that employees have stocked out fish to other locations much earlier than planned. An estimated 125,000 trout remain and 10,000 – 15,000 of those are being shipped out each week. Oetker and Hines say they’re stocking the last of the summer rounds at the moment, but if hatchery operations have to be completely suspended due to further erosion of the pipeline, “there probably won’t be any fingerlings to stock this fall.”

Every fish cultured and stocked by the two hatcheries last year went into tribal waters. “Eighty-five percent of these fish get transferred to White Mountain Apache lakes and streams,” Oetker said. The program assists tribes in developing public recreational fishing programs with economic benefits channeled into natural resource initiatives that help everything from imperiled species programs to non-game management and conservation/watershed restoration programs.

While options are being discussed, large emergency water pumps have been staged in the event of a complete system failure. But the pumps themselves are only temporary – and costly – an estimated $250,000 per month.

“We need to replace the entire line now, all at once, because you can’t shut off water flow to individual sections of a flowing pipeline. But this is an unexpected emergency that begs the question, how do we come up with money we don’t have at the moment,” asks Oetker of a repair project expected to cost in the vicinity of $3.5 million.

In the meantime, the hatchery – named for a famous Apache chief and in operation since the early 1960s – tries to figure out its future, a decision that will directly affect a lot of trout and a lot of tribal members.