FAIRBANKS — As manager of the new, and as yet unopened, $46 million Ruth Burnett Sport Fish Hatchery, Gary George has heard plenty of alternative uses for the cavernous 56,300-square-foot building on Wilbur Street.
Two of the most common are a waterslide park and a paintball arena.
But George is confident that sooner or later, thousands of rainbow trout, arctic grayling and arctic char will swim in the 28 round, green plastic tanks still empty more than a year after the hatchery’s scheduled opening.
“The bottom line is we’re headed in the direction we want to go,” George said, standing between two 30-foot tanks designed to hold 50,000 10-inch rainbow trout each.
But the bottom line for fishermen is fish, and fishermen have yet to see any, even though the cost of their fishing licenses was raised $9 in 2006 to pay for the hatchery.
“I wouldn’t call it a white elephant yet, but it’s getting to that point,” said Ken Alt, president of the Fairbanks chapter of Trout Unlimited.
Problems with the hatchery’s state-of-the-art water filtration system have delayed the opening, which was scheduled for May 2010. While construction of the hatchery is pretty much complete, engineers with contractor CH2M Hill, the company that built the hatchery, are fine-tuning filters designed to remove iron and manganese from the water.
“We’re evaluating the water quality on a daily basis,” CH2M Hill engineer Rebecca Venot said last week as she checked several different water samples in the hatchery’s new lab. “As soon as we’re confident we can move forward, we’ll go ahead with the proof of performance.”
That proof is a required 30-day trial test at the maximum water flow used in the hatchery — approximately 1,200 gallons per minute — and is needed before the Department of Fish and Game will move fish into the facility. The iron content of its water can be no more than 0.1 parts per million and manganese levels must be 0.05 parts per million or less.
Nobody is saying how close the water quality is to those levels or how long it will take to get them there.
“It’s improving,” is all Venot would say.
Local sport fishermen are “quite disappointed that it’s taken so long,” Alt said. The state’s inability to provide enough fish to stock area lakes and ponds the past several years has left anglers with fewer and smaller fish, he said. Fewer, smaller fish means fewer fishermen.
“We’re losing lots of anglers,” Alt said. “That’s been our group’s concern for a long time.”
Once it is up and running, the hatchery will produce all the fish needed to stock more than 130 lakes and ponds in the Interior, ADF&G officials promise. The hatchery will specialize in rainbow trout but also will produce arctic char, arctic grayling, king salmon and silver salmon. The original plan was to have 89,000 catchable size (10-inch) rainbow trout to release this May. That didn’t happen.
“It’s a shame they haven’t got that thing done yet,” said Robert Fox, president of the Midnight Sun Fly Casters, a local fly fishing club. “It’s frustrating.”
The Department of Fish and Game’s statewide hatchery coordinator, Jeff Milton, said “no one is proud of the fact that this facility is more than a year late in coming online,” but the state isn’t going to move fish into the hatchery until CH2M Hill gets the water filtration system working properly.
Even if the hatchery doesn’t open for a few more months, the delay won’t cost Interior anglers any fish next year, Milton said. The department is scheduled to begin rearing rainbow trout eggs July 7 at the new $100 million William J. Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery in Anchorage. Those eggs include all the fish planned for the Fairbanks hatchery, and Fairbanks fish will be moved here when the water quality problems are fixed, Milton said.
“So long as CH2M Hill is able to meet the hatchery flow and water quality standards within the coming months, we should be able to meet most, if not all, of the (Fairbanks hatchery) production targets set for 2011,” he wrote in an email, adding that the contractor “is solely responsible for the success of the operation.”
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.