Breaching of Dams Could Have Big Impactby Jim Mann
The Daily Inter Lake, March 2, 2000
A panel of federal officials heard contrasting advice on how to run rivers, dams and fisheries in the Northwest at a hearing in Kalispell Wednesday.
About 100 people attended the hearing on rapidly developing management strategies for habitat, hydropower and salmon harvesting and hatcheries. Leading the meeting were representatives of the Federal Caucus, a group of nine different agencies that aims to develop a more comprehensive and coordinated approach to endangered species issues in waterways of the Northwest.
Many speakers insisted that a proposal to breach four dams on the lower Snake River is the only way to save salmon stocks in that river, some of which are on the brink of extinction.
But most speakers questioned how that proposal and others would affect Montana's reservoirs and rivers, and how Montana's farmers and electric ratepayers would fare.
Rep. Aubyn Curtiss, R-Fortine, demanded changes in the way Hungry Horse and Libby Dam's have been operated in recent years, with large and frequently erratic releases aimed at benefiting migrating salmon fry in the lower Columbia River.
She and other speakers said the "flow augmentation" strategy has not been proven to benefit salmon, but it has been proven to be harmful to fisheries far upstream in Montana.
Speakers, as well as some government officials, offered contrasting opinions Wednesday on whether breaching the Snake River dams would lessen the demand for Montana water, or force adverse changes in Montana dam operations.
Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, suggests that flow augmentation would be a "less compelling" option if the dams were breached.
He said breaching will lead to salmon recovery "that has a realistic chance of success, instead of seeing it go to the same technological fixes, such as barging smolts, augmenting flows, eliminating sport and commercial harvests and increasing hatchery production, that have failed for the last 30 years."
Donna Darm, assistant regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, surmised that it would lessen demands for Montana water.
"It's hard for me to imagine that we would be seeking additional flows from Montana with dam breaching," she said. "I would think that we would seek less."
But others, including Mark Reller, the Bonneville Power Administration's liaison to Montana, sees things differently.
Reller said losing the dams may benefit Snake River salmon runs, but he predicts there would still be demands for water to help fish in the lower Columbia.
The four dams provide about 5 percent of the Northwest power supply, and Montana dams could be used to replace that power. This could cause frequent fluctuations in releases, which Montana officials have resisted because of the adverse effects to aquatic life below the dams.
Lincoln County Commissioner Rita Windom urged federal managers to implement the state of Montana's preferred formulas for operating Hungry Horse and Libby dams. The formulas encourage even discharges, better chances for refilling the reservoirs above the dams, and a reduced risk of the dams being lowered dramatically during critical summer months.
She noted that Libby Dam is the only federal project that can be managed to benefit threatened bull trout and white sturgeon, as well as cutthroat, redband trout and burbot, which have all been petitioned for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Brian Marotz urged the same. And Jack Stanford, director of the Biological Station at Yellow Bay, went a step further.
Stanford said large and unnaturally timed water releases deliver nutrients that are harmful to Flathead Lake's water quality. If continued, he said, the practice could lead to violation of state water quality standards and the Clean Water Act.
Flathead Valley farmer Bruce Tutvedt, representing the Montana Grain Growers, said breaching the dams would eliminate barging on the Snake River and cause "devastating" transportation cost increases to Montana farmers.
Representatives of the Flathead Electric Cooperative and several other small regional utility companies all predicted that dam breaching would lead to higher regional electric rates.
"There's no question in my mind that the impact on ratepayers in the Northwest would be devastating," said John Alton, a board member of the Flathead Co-op.
Representatives of the National Wildlife Federation, and the Columbia and Snake Rivers Campaign were on hand with banners, bulletin boards and stickers.
"We're looking at the extinction of Snake River salmon stocks in our lifetime," said Rich Day of the National Wildlife Federation.
Restoring salmon populations will restore a commercial fishing industries that been crushed by salmon declines, said Amy Wexler, also of the National Wildlife Federation.
Speakers for the groups insisted that dam breaching is the only answer for Snake River salmon, which amount to about 90 percent of their historical populations.
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