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Dry Spell Conjured Up in River System

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, July 20, 2000

The tide has turned.

After four or five good years of water flow in the Columbia and Snake river system, it's dried up in a hurry. And the massive water storage complex is just about tapped out.

"It's going to be a long summer," said Bob Heinith, hydro program coordinator at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in Portland.

Make that a long, hot summer in which dam operators will lose millions of dollars, and fish could die by the thousands, harmed by high temperatures and low water levels.

It's unusual for the water prospects to change so quickly, officials said. In recent times, "This is the first year when we have come into a summer near average and had it go dry on us," said Cindy Henriksen, chief of the Corps of Engineers Reservoir Control Center in Portland. "So this is somewhat of a new experience for us."

Every year, river managers juggle competing power, recreation, irrigation and fish demands for water, an act that's relatively easy when there's lots of water to go around.

That's not the case this summer, with most of the region's large reservoirs drained nearly as far as possible under current agreements.

Even so, most irrigated farmers in the Basin and the Yakima Valley expect to escape the brunt of any shortages.

The federal watermaster in the Yakima Valley doesn't expect the dry year will cause irrigation water shortages, welcome news for a valley where farmers still talk about severe irrigation cuts in 1994.

"It looks fairly good for our reservoirs right now," said Dave Henneman, hydrologist for the Bureau of Reclamation in Yakima. "It has been a fairly long dry spell, and that does (create) a lot of demands, but we are able to provide adequate water."

But adequate water in a tributary such as the Yakima doesn't mean main stem managers will have an easy time of it.

"This is obviously causing the region ... to rethink how to allocate the water for the remainder of the summer," Henriksen said.

The way things are looking now, that exercise is just a warmup for next year unless this winter's precipitation is far above normal. At Grant County Public Utility District, Lon Topaz compared the river with a checking account that's drained.

"If your ending balance is smaller, you are probably going to have more trouble next year," he said.

This year is bad enough for Heinith.

"We're just stuck in a horrendous situation," he said. "The conditions we are seeing out there is normally what we would see in late August. We are a month ahead in terms of temperatures."

High temperatures harm returning fish by sapping their spawning strength and making it easier for disease to spread through the population.

Heinith predicts that by September, the flow at Lower Granite Dam near Lewiston will be about 20,000 cubic feet per second, not even half of target flows to make sure the river is hospitable for migrating salmon. Right now, it's about 79 percent of normal.

"This is the first year that I can recall where we are not going to meet spring flow targets as well as the summer (targets)," Heinith said.

What started out as a fairly normal "water year" turned sharply for the worse in May and June with dry weather across the region, Henriksen said.

At the start of June, summer water projections at The Dalles Dam was for 97 percent of normal. A month later, it was for 90 percent of normal.

"This year we have had a very dry June, so many of the reservoirs did not fill completely," Henriksen said, noting river managers made a "conscious decision" to use storage water for fish in the early summer rather than late summer.

"We have this awful bargain in years like this," said Tim Stearns, director of the National Wildlife Foundation's natural resource center in Seattle. "Do you help spring fish, or do you save it for fall fish?"

Stearns said it's not clear yet if there will be enough water in the Snake system to cool the river for returning adults in late August and September.

Chances don't look good.

At McNary Dam, flows are about 165,000 cubic feet per second, compared with 200,000 cfs in mid-July in recent years.

And the water that's coming into the McNary from the Snake River is far too hot for fish, said Heinith, who plans today to ask river managers to turn off two turbines at McNary so they don't fill the fish collection chambers with 72-degree water.

He blames the Corps for the current predicament, saying it released too much water from reservoirs too soon for flood control and spring fish. The tribes traditionally advocate saving water for the fall to support the large tribal and sport fishery.

Heinith and Stearns predicted the region would see a decrease in salmon returns three and four years from now, when this year's fish are due to return to the river.

But fish aren't the only concern in the Basin. Less water means less money for dam operators such as the Grant PUD. Topaz said his utility budgets conservatively to account for short water years like this one.

"In a sense, we'll lose some opportunities," he said, "It's just a few million dollars of expectations we might have that now might not get realized. ... We won't be in any difficulty."

Mike Lee
Dry Spell Conjured Up in River System
Tri-City Herald, July 20, 2000

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