A change in how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers interprets its acquisition regulations means it could privatize the operation of Cole Rivers Hatchery on the Rogue River and six other hatcheries it owns in Oregon.

The agency is floating the concept of contracting the Cole Rivers operation — and its nearly 2.8 million fish grown there for release in the Rogue River Basin — to the lowest bidder on a one-year contract as early as spring.

Those potential bidders would include the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has run Cole Rivers under a cooperative agreement with the Corps since it opened in 1974. It also operates the six other hatcheries in Oregon associated with Corps dams.

Corps spokeswoman Michelle Helms said a recent review of the Federal Acquisitions Regulations has led Corps officials to believe the contract approach is more appropriate than the longer-term cooperative agreements.

"The understanding of the law has developed over the years, and that's what's driving this," Helms said. "The change will allow us to better meet the requirements of the FAR."

It also could lead to more efficiencies, Helms said.

Cole Rivers is the first of the Corps' seven hatcheries to move toward the new contract approach, and the agency could start soliciting bids as early as the end of February, according to a notice published last week.

The contract winner could take over the facility as early as April 15 and operate for one year with two consecutive one-year options available, the notice states.

Russ Stauff, ODFW's Rogue Watershed manager, said the hatchery's production might not be up to snuff for anglers should it fall to a private contractor who may not be as accountable to Rogue Basin anglers and local legislators who have a say in the agency budget. 

"As an angler, I'd be concerned," Stauff said. "There's a lot of uncertainty on whether we'll see the same level of fish production and quality."

The other hatcheries likely to face contract bids down the line are Bonneville Hatchery on the Columbia River, Marion Forks Hatchery on the North Santiam River, the South Santiam Hatchery on the South Santiam River and the Willamette, McKenzie and Lieberg hatcheries in the Willamette Valley.

"This is going to be changing for all of those," Helms said.

Like the others in their respective basins, Cole Rivers is a "mitigation hatchery" built to raise fish annually to make up for the wild salmon and steelhead lost when the Corps built Lost Creek and Applegate dams, which block wild fish from natural spawning grounds.

It raises about 2.58 million salmon and steelhead for release in the Rogue and Applegate rivers as well as rainbow trout for release throughout the basin. In most cases, the fin-clipped salmon and steelhead raised and released from the hatchery are the only salmon and steelhead anglers can keep.

ODFW also piggybacks at least part of the production of another 504,600 salmon and steelhead at Cole Rivers for release elsewhere in southwestern Oregon. If ODFW loses operation at Cole Rivers, those fish would have to be sent elsewhere.

Ryan Couture, ODFW's regional hatchery coordinator, said an abrupt turnover of the hatchery reins could disrupt the care of hundreds of thousands of young salmon and steelhead in different stages of their life cycles. 

"Fish don't necessarily live by calendars," Couture said.

ODFW's current operation has 16.5 full-time equivalent positions, the hatchery's management plan states.

The Corps' market survey states that the agency would retain ownership of the facility and land and all permanent fixtures should a bid be offered. The contractor would provide all the personnel, tools, vehicles and all other applicable needs, the survey states.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.