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New Dam Plan Helps Montana

by Jim Mann
Daily Inter Lake, May 7, 2008

The federal government this week released a combination of "biological opinions" to govern the recovery of 13 threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead species in the Columbia Basin.

For the first time, the state of Montana's desired dam operations are part of the package.

The three "BiOps" have provisions for Libby and Hungry Horse dams that include protracted late summer releases and limited reservoir drawdowns during all but the lowest water years. Both of those features are expected to benefit Montana fish populations above and below the dams.

But getting those features codified in the complex, interwoven rules for hydroelectric operations across the Columbia Basin has been a long task for Montana officials, involving disputes and litigation with competing interests in the basin.

"It has seemed so simple for so long," said Kalispell attorney Bruce Measure, one of Montana's two representatives on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. "But from a standpoint of getting it done, yes, this has been like pushing a boulder uphill for a lot of folks for many years."

The new documents, which must be approved by U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland, call for operations that Montana has been seeking since about 1996, Measure said.

Brian Marotz, a fisheries biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the research supporting Montana's position stretches back even farther.

"We've been working on this for nearly two decades and it's finally being implemented," Marotz said. "We won on the science a long time ago, and this is very important for our natural resources."

For years, federal agencies and downstream states compelled large surges of water to be released from Libby and Hungry Horse dams late in the summer to augment flows in the lower Columbia River system for the benefit of migrating salmon.

Montana officials have long pointed out that the Montana releases were barely measurable at McNary Dam on the Columbia River, and they have long been skeptical of the actual benefits to salmon.

But they have over time built a body of research demonstrating biological impacts that result when the Montana reservoirs are suddenly dropped, and rivers below dams suddenly rise, only to be drastically lowered a short time later. Biologically productive shorelines are de-watered, and riverbanks are inundated and then de-watered during the peak growing season for fish species that include native bull trout and cutthroat trout.

The operations prescribed in the biological opinions call for continued late summer releases, but with flows gradually being reduced into the end of September.

"It is one of the only operations in the [Columbia River Basin] that has good scientific backing," Measure asserted.

He noted that past operations at dams throughout the basin have been speculative, because salmon populations face a variety of survival challenges when they enter the Pacific Ocean.

The biological opinions also include a provision that limits late-summer drawdowns on Lake Koocanusa and Hungry Horse Reservoir to 10 feet below full pool in water years that are at least 80 percent of average. The reservoirs can be drawn down 20 feet during less common low-water years.

In the past, the reservoirs were drawn down 20 feet, regardless of water supplies, to support flow augmentation, Measure said.

Those operations impacted fisheries as well as recreation above and below the dams. Montana was able to gradually secure improvements in dam operations, but never to the extent of being backed by the basinwide biological opinions that have been repeatedly challenged in court.

The opinions released this week are the product of collaborative negotiations required by Judge Redden after he invalidated a 2004 biological opinion as well as a 2001 opinion.

Measure said the latest package has the support of down-river tribal governments as well as the state of Idaho and, most likely, the state of Washington.

He said there could be continued opposition from environmental groups, the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce tribe.

The Columbia Basin Bulletin, an online publication that tracks fisheries and hydroelectric issues in the basin, reported this week that there is discontent among environmental groups that have pressed for removal of four dams on the lower Snake River as the best means of improving salmon survival.

Jim Mann
New Dam Plan Helps Montana
Daily Inter Lake, May 7, 2008

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