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Officials Expect Grim Year for Migrating Fish

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, January 27, 2001

Federal fisheries managers are predicting a grim year for out-migrating juvenile salmon and steelhead because of the region's low water supply and high demand for power.

The conflicting needs are likely to test the recently completed federal recovery plan for listed stocks of anadromous fish in the Snake and Columbia river basins.

"The only good news is the worst will be behind us after this year, and we will see just how bad 'bad' is given the current operation schemes," said Paul Wagner a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service at Portland.

Managers of the system are releasing water from behind dams like Dworshak on the North Fork of the Clearwater River and Libby Dam on Montana's Kootenai River to meet regional demands for power.

That will leave less water for flow augmentation used during spring and summer runoff to flush young salmon and steelhead to the ocean.

At the same time, fisheries managers are trying to maintain water levels below Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River to protect the redds of endangered chum salmon. That has caused the release of water from behind Grand Coulee Dam. But low water levels in Lake Roosevelt prompted officials to tap water behind Dworshak and Libby dams.

The federal salmon recovery plan calls for a committee comprised of senior executives from several federal agencies to manage the river systems during power emergencies of unusual magnitude or length.

The region is in just such a situation now and federal executives met late into the evening Friday to decide next week's river operation. In the short term, the needs of people likely will outweigh the needs of the fish, according to Wagner.

"I would expect health and human safety to be the priorities of the system operators. I don't expect that to change," said Wagner, who did not attend the meeting.

That will mean a tough migration for juvenile salmon and steelhead this spring and summer if the trend of dry winter weather is not reversed. A mid-month forecast by the National Weather Service is predicting flows in the Columbia River at The Dalles to be just 68 percent of average between January and July. The worst forecast on record was 1977 when flows were predicted to be 51 percent of average.

Forecasts call for spring and summer runoff to be 70 percent of normal for the North Fork of the Clearwater River.

"There is no doubt we have real anxieties about what might happen in the spring," said NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman at Portland. "I anticipate there will be low flows and high temperatures in the main stem Snake and Columbia when we need high flows and low temperatures."

Because of that, he said the federal agencies likely will rely more heavily on fish transportation rather than spill at the main stem dams to help the young fish reach the ocean.

At times, he said, it's likely nearly all the fish in the river will be collected and transported.

Many argue that handling the fish at the dams injures them and causes many to perish after they are released below Bonneville Dam. Others feel barging and trucking the fish is the best way to get them down the river and cite high survival rates of the fish during transport.

River managers have opted for a spread-the-risk policy that leaves some fish to migrate on their own while the majority are captured and transported. To aid the fish that migrate in river and to prevent many of them from passing through turbines, water generally is spilled at the dams during migration. But low water supplies may prevent the possibility of normal spill regimes.

The government also has relied heavily on water from Dworshak Reservoir to not only increase the flows in the Snake River but also to keep temperatures at tolerable levels for salmon and steelhead. Less of that water will be available this year, barring large, late winter storms. Dworshak is about 88 feet below full pool and may go lower if the demand for power does not subside.

Eric Barker
Officials Expect Grim Year for Migrating Fish
Lewiston Tribune, January 27, 2001

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