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Region is Feeling Drained

by Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
The Spokesman Review, February 26, 2000

Future file: Power shortage, drought affecting Lake Roosevelt

In desperate need of water to generate electricity, federal agencies are struggling to balance the competing demands of communities along Northwest reservoirs, as well as the needs of fish.

"It's gotten to the point where they've decided every reservoir has to share the pain" of severe drawdowns, said Dave Lyngholm, power manager at Grand Coulee Dam.

The area drained by the Columbia River -- portions of five states and British Columbia -- is suffering its fourth-worst winter drought on record. It will move up to No. 3 without significant storms in coming weeks, said Jim Ruff, chief regional hydrologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The situation is even worse than the numbers suggest.

Ruff said the water behind dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries is lower now than in February 1977, the driest winter on record. That's because the demand for electricity has risen dramatically in 24 years, forcing power managers to run more water through turbines.

Lake Roosevelt already is so low it may not refill until late summer. The 130-mile-long reservoir is formed by Grand Coulee Dam, the nation's most productive hydroelectric dam and a key element in the Northwest's power grid.

The low water is forcing hatchery managers to release thousands of trout and kokanee from net pens before they're ready to survive. Those fish are raised to draw fishermen who dump about $10 million each year into the economy of rural northeastern Washington.

Low water at Roosevelt doesn't prevent boating. But it does expose steep banks that produce blowing dust in summer.

The lower the water, the more boat launches and swimming areas are unusable. There's no way of knowing how many of those attractions will remain dry this summer, so no way of predicting whether visitors will stay away from Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area.

Folks who have stores, run marinas or rent boats are worried about business. People in Kettle Falls wonder whether dry boat ramps will force cancelation of the Governor's Cup Walleye Tournament, which draws hundreds of people each June.

"We've only got a 90-day tourist season -- just June, July and August," said Cathy LeBret, Kettle Falls aide for Rep. George Nethercutt. "If the water stays low, it affects your gas stations, your motels, your restaurants, everybody."

To slow the drain on Lake Roosevelt, power managers are taking more water than they'd like from behind Libby and Hungry Horse dams in Montana, as well as Dworshak Dam in Idaho. That way, they can leave more water in Roosevelt to whisk through Grand Coulee in case there's an emergency need to generate power quickly for the Northwest or California, said Rob Swedo of the Bonneville Power Administration.

If not for that decision, Roosevelt would be so low that the Gifford Ferry would have quit running back and forth to Inchelium by now, forcing an hour-long detour for anyone who must cross the reservoir to reach schools, hospitals or jobs. As it stands, power managers can only promise that they'll try to keep the ferry running through March, Swedo said.

Low water normally forces the ferry into dry-dock each spring. But that's never happened this early, or with this much uncertainty about when operations can resume, LeBret said.

The plan for limiting Lake Roosevelt drawdowns isn't popular in Montana, where residents long have fought for consistent operations at the Libby reservoir, known as Lake Koocanusa. They're trying to protect kokanee, a fish that draws fishermen to the economically depressed region, and sturgeon, an endangered fish that lives in the Kootenai River downstream of the dam.

Forecasters say there's only a 5 percent chance Koocanusa will reach full pool by July, compared to a 61 percent chance for Lake Roosevelt. The annual May release of water to help Kootenai River sturgeon won't happen this year, meaning the fish likely will have little spawning success.

"This irritates the heck out of us up here," said Sherman Lee, a Eureka, Mont., fisherman with a home overlooking the reservoir. "We're sacrificing our resources so they don't have to drive that extra 60 miles" when ferry service is disrupted on Lake Roosevelt.

Dworshak reservoir is holding only about a quarter full, said Mark Snider, a spokesman for Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. That's tough on tourist-related businesses in a region already hit with the loss of timber jobs, Snider said.

Without water in Dworshak reservoir, fisheries biologists won't have what they need to help salmon in August. Water normally is released through the dam to cool the Snake River when it's too hot for salmon. That water also helps whisk migrating juvenile salmon to the Pacific.

Not all the news is bad for fish.

Biologists have been able to coordinate with power managers to keep plenty of water in the lower Columbia for chum salmon.

And endangered burbot benefited from low early winter flows in the Kootenai River, said Idaho biologist Vaughn Paragamian.

"We caught about 48 fish in three weeks, which is totally remarkable," said Paragamian. "There was at least one female that had already spawned. There were females that were ready to spawn. There were males that were ready to spawn."

Paragamian, who started studying the river's burbot in 1993, said he usually doesn't find any spawning fish in Idaho's portion of the Kootenai. A fresh-water cod, burbot have a tough time bucking the big water the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers usually releases from Libby Dam starting in November.

This year, there was no big water.

Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
Region is Feeling Drained
Spokesman Review, February 26, 2000

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