Four H: Federal Agencies Weigh Optionsby N.S. Nokkentved
TWIN FALLS -- For southern Idaho, the issue of salmon recovery is becoming a choice between giving up more stored irrigation water or breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River in Washington state.
That option could dry up 350,000 acres of irrigated farm land in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon. But the exact effects won't be known until actual proposals are presented, and that is a ways off yet.
Under the options presented at a news conference in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, the best option for the fish includes removing the earthen portion of the four federal dams on the Snake -- "de-constructing the four dams in the lower Snake," said Will Stelle, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
But there's more than just dams involved in recovering the Columbia and Snake river salmon listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
"It's not just hydro," Stelle said during discussion of the release of a working paper known as the "Four H Working Paper."
The paper was compiled by nine federal agencies with responsibility in salmon recovery. The "Hs" refer to hydroelectric system operations on the Columbia and Snake rivers; hatchery operations; harvest levels; and habitat conditions in the region, and the changes in those operations needed to recover endangered salmon runs.
Among the changes contemplated in the hydro system -- the hydroelectric dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers -- is an increase in stored water from the Upper Snake River, which includes parts of eastern Oregon and southern and eastern Idaho.
"Fish need healthy streams to survive, return and reproduce," Stelle said.
Federal officials have been getting 427,000 acre-feet of water from eastern Idaho reservoirs and about 1 million acre-feet of water is released from Dworshak Reservoir on the Clearwater River to augment flows and reduce the temperature in the reservoirs backed up behind the dams in the lower Snake.
An acre-foot is enough water to cover one acre, one foot deep, or 325,850 gallons or 43,560 cubic feet.
Additional water would help increase flows but would not be much help to spring and summer chinook. But a Fisheries Service study, released in September, shows a strong correlation between augmentation and improved survival of fall chinook.
Water from the Upper Snake would help improve survival of fall chinook, the study says.
"Summertime water matters and makes a difference," Stelle said.
Another alternative presented in the paper defers a decision on dam breaching and allows a period to study whether actions in the other three Hs are enough to recover the fish. That option would include increased flows and increased spill over the dams.
It also would require increased restrictions on uses on non-federal lands, including logging, mining, grazing, agriculture and other land uses that affect water quality.
The options present in the Four H paper are not preferred alternatives.
The Four H paper gives the Idaho delegation five months to do what they can to protect Idaho interests, said Scott Bosse, fisheries biologist with Idaho Rivers United and a leading proponent of breaching the dams.
But it's up to Idaho's political leaders to protect Idaho water, Idaho steelhead and the loggers, miners, ranchers, river runners and anglers who would face increasing restrictions if the dams stay in place.
"Continuing to say no to everything ain't gonna cut it," Bosse said. "The status quo is not an option."
But he was disappointed in Four H paper, saying it leaves an illusion of choices that are not all possible, realistic or even feasible, he said.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said it's been his fear for the past year and a half that the issue would come down to a choice between the dams and southern Idaho irrigation water.
He has said in the past that if that were the choice, he'd have to protect the water. But he also fears the reality may be both -- the dams and the water would go, he said Tuesday.
It is good that the paper takes a broad look at potential options for salmon recovery and looks at different combinations of options, he said. For now, however, he will withhold judgment until the federal agencies issue their final recommendations on salmon recovery.
Sen. Larry Craig has not yet had time to digest the paper, spokesman Mike Tracy said. Craig wanted to study the paper more carefully before commenting, Tracy said.
Stelle emphasized Tuesday that the Four H paper is meant to stimulate public discussion in the Northwest. The success of salmon recovery will depend on the quality and durability of the commitment of people and governments in the Northwest, he said.
Some Snake River salmon are at high risk of extinction within the next 10 years, he said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expects to issue a draft of its environmental analysis of breaching the dams in mid-December. But that study will include no preferred alternative. The Corps' final analysis -- issued after considering public comment on the draft -- will include a preferred alternative, but it is not expected until mid-year, Stelle said.
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