ELLENSBURG — The future home of up to 700,000 coho salmon per year provided a perfect setting to honor a former Yakama Nation chairman who dedicated his life to the tribe’s fisheries.

Well over 200 visitors entered the Melvin R. Sampson Coho Facility northwest of Ellensburg on Friday morning, following the 81-year-old man who peeled off a white covering and cardboard to reveal the glass door bearing his name. Although some delays mean the hatchery won’t be ready for fish until at least April, many elements were completed and in full view as operating manager D.J. Brownlee and many others spoke to the assembled crowd.

“It’s a truly humbling moment for me,” Brownlee said afterward. “It’s really great that we have the opportunity to give respect for Mel Sampson, who’s a living legend.”

Brownlee has been working at the facility since the groundbreaking last August and moved with his family into their camp trailer on-site three and a half months ago. They’ll eventually live in new on-site housing, along with the families of tribal members Talbert Looking Elk and Toby Ambrose, both of whom will work full time under Brownlee.

Project superintendent Karl Wagner of Boise, Idaho-based McMillen Jacobs Associates expects most of the mechanical and electrical work inside the main building to be completed by the end of January. The crew is also ready to finish the adult coho holding ponds and move forward on a shop building, along with the residences.

Water from the nearby Yakima River and nine shallow groundwater wells during irrigation months will fill 18 circular tanks with a diameter of 10 feet and a depth of 4 feet for younger fish, and 10 tanks with a diameter of 26 feet and depth of 6.5 feet for when the salmon get older. Lights will be set on timers to simulate daylight, and Wagner said they’ve installed a solar grid on the roof to help provide energy.

“Everything here will be primarily automated,” Wagner said. “All the pumps are on varied frequency drives, so go up or down depending on your need.”

That includes the facility’s most important innovation, a system that will recirculate 80 percent of the water. Brownlee said this should allow the facility to use 930 to 1,200 gallons of water per minute during peak demand times, compared with more than 12,000 gallons per minute at an older facility such as the spring chinook hatchery in Cle Elum.

But Wagner said the recirculation system made it much more difficult to find the right materials for the chiller room, which ensures the water temperature stays between 41 and 43 degrees. The concerns with the initial design came from the copper lining, which rubs off in water over time.

“A little bit won’t hurt the fish, but they don’t know how it would act periodically with it continually running through there,” Wagner said. “So we had to find a manufacturer, which took forever, to basically custom build these.”

Those changes delayed the facility’s original fall opening, but Wagner said they didn’t significantly add to the $16 million price tag for design and construction, which will be paid for primarily by the Bonneville Power Administration.

Brownlee said fish will arrive as soon as the facility is ready, and the yearly cycle will begin anew when more coho are brought in for spawning in October.

Reach Luke Thompson at luthompson@yakimaherald.com and on Twitter: @luketscribe