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Dam Operations to be Focus of Federal Hearing Wednesday

by Jim Mann
The Daily Inter Lake, February 28, 2000

Dam breaching on the lower Snake River has been the hot topic regionally, but dam operations in Montana will be the main issue at a federal hearing Wednesday in Kalispell.

Federal agencies have been holding the meetings on “Conservation of Columbia Basin Fish” throughout February in an effort to reach a “biological opinion” that will dictate dam operations for as long as 10 years.

A draft biological opinion will come out in the next few weeks.

“If there are operations you don’t agree with, now is the time to say something about it,” said Brian Marotz, special projects biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The state’s concerns have centered on demands for water from the Hungry Horse and Koocanusa reservoirs to help salmon fry migrate through the lower Columbia River.

The state contends the benefits of “flow augmentation” are arguably minimal, compared to the ecological and recreational costs incurred by the reservoirs and the rivers immediately below them.

The state advocates dam release formulas that avoid maximum reservoir drawdowns during the winter, and unnatural “double peak” releases during the summer months that can leave the reservoirs 20 feet below full pool.

The deep winter drawdowns make it more difficult to refill the reservoirs, Marotz said, making maximum drawdowns during the summer more likely.

Boaters and businesses that depend on the reservoirs have complained bitterly during low-water years. And the ecological effects can be drastic, Marotz said.

When releases are boosted in July and August — the most biologically productive time of year — juvenile bull and cutthroat trout are forced to forage on riverbanks that were previously high and dry. When the river drops again, they are left to forage in another aquatic “desert,” Marotz said.

When a reservoir is de-watered, the same thing happens — productive habitat becomes shoreline.

Past basin operations have been dictated by flow targets at dams on the lower Columbia River.

“I’m hoping to get away from a flow target on the lower Columbia,” Marotz said. “You operate all of the storage reservoirs based on their inflows — how much water is available — and then you finesse the system, and you do the best you can to get water downstream.”

However, Marotz said, downstream salmon interests have had a nearly insatiable appetite for higher flows. That appetite prompted the state of Montana to sue federal dam operators two years ago for failing to account for upstream impacts.

A federal judge ruled in the state’s favor, requiring that dam operators consider Montana’s preferred release formulas. And a basinwide effort was launched to take a multi-species approach to dam management.

Theoretically, that would put threatened bull trout on an even par with anadromous salmon and steelhead species protected by the Endangered Species Act.

But Marotz and other state officials say the dam operations will still favor more populous downstream states that have multimillion-dollar salmon industries.

One of the main reports up for comment at Wednesday’s hearing will be the “All-H” assessments on habitat, hatcheries, hydro power, and harvest.

“Even though this talks about anadromous and resident fish in various places in the document, most of the focus has been on anadromous fish, and most of the emphasis on the probability of extinction is focused on anadromous fish,” Marotz said. “This is supposed to be a Columbia Basin-wide multi-species effort.”

Hundreds of people have shown up at earlier hearings in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, mostly to support or vilify a proposal to breach four dams on the Snake River.

Although that may appear to be a distant issue, Marotz said, dam breaching may have side effects that reach into Montana.

He explained that increased velocities and more spawning habitat on the Snake River may help the recovery of salmon populations and reduce the demand for Montana water.

“People are saying that if you do this, you will reduce the demands on Montana,” he said. “But I haven’t seen any evidence of that. There are those who would breach the dams and still want more water from Montana reservoirs.”

Removing roughly 1,000 megawatts from the Northwest power system may lead to a system that must be operated more efficiently to keep up with peak demands. And that could lead to pressure for far more erratic releases from Hungry Horse and Libby dams, Marotz said.

On all matters related to management of Columbia Basin water, Marotz said Montanans should be interested in accountability.

“People should be asking for performance indicators,” he said. “What are the measures to see how we are doing? How are we going to measure success?”

Jim Mann
Dam Operations to be Focus of Federal Hearing Wednesday
The Daily Inter Lake- Kalispell, Montana, February 28, 2000

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