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Dam Operators Fly Idaho Rivers, Map Hot Spots

by John Miller
The Seattle Times, August 9, 2009

BOISE, Idaho -- Federal hydropower officials will buzz two Idaho mountain rivers this week with helicopter-mounted cameras typically used for tracking illegal immigrants or finding dangerous transmission-line hotspots.

For this mission, the cameras will be pointed at endangered salmon spawning grounds in an effort to pinpoint the spots where habitat restoration would do the most good.

The Bonneville Power Administration says thermal and video images captured Monday and Tuesday from a Bell helicopter 800- to 1,200-feet above the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi rivers will focus BPA-financed work like planting streamside vegetation to give young chinook or steelhead cool nooks to hide from predators.

Environmentalists complain that the effort by the BPA - which markets energy from 31 Columbia River Basin hydroelectric dams and pays millions annually to offset their negative effects on salmon runs - is merely distracting from a more significant issue: removal of Lower Snake River dams that kill migrating fish.

But power agency officials fighting dam breaching contend fish-passage improvements at eight Columbia and Snake dams running about $80 million yearly since the early 1990s are nearing peak effectiveness, with 90 percent or more of young fish swimming to the Pacific Ocean surviving each dam. Consequently, they said, habitat improvement like that guided by these camera images will increasingly occupy BPA's focus.

"I'm not saying the dams don't continue to impact fish, but they are substantially more innocuous than they were 30 years ago," said Bill Maslin, director of BPA fish and wildlife in Portland, Ore. "The degradation of that habitat continues. We think that's where the better opportunities are."

Since the mid-20th century, the BPA's massive dam projects have been the region's energy backbone, but also are blamed for dwindling numbers of the iconic salmon that swim hundreds of miles into Oregon, Washington and Idaho to reproduce.

Agricultural irrigation, logging, livestock grazing and human encroachment have added to fish woes on tributaries like the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi, both of which run into the Salmon River in the central Idaho mountains.

Environmental groups concede habitat restoration is laudable.

Still, Bill Sedivy, Idaho Rivers United director in Boise, said restoring Snake River salmon runs that once numbered in the millions demands something the BPA is doing its utmost to avoid: breaching four Snake River dams in eastern Washington.

"Focusing on habitat restoration to the exclusion of focusing on mainstem restoration, which is what the BPA would like to make you think we need to do, is like trying to treat a brain tumor with aspirin," Sedivy said.

Thirteen Columbia River salmon runs are listed under the Endangered Species Act, four of which - Snake River sockeye, fall and spring Snake River chinook and steelhead - spawn in Idaho.

A Bush-era plan, rejected twice by a U.S. District Court judge who says dam breaching should be considered as a last resort, calls for tackling a range of salmon and steelhead recovery barriers, everything from managing predators like sea lions to beefing up degraded habitat. The BPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam managers contend they can restore fish without breaching that would hurt recreation, river shipping and energy production.

By Thursday, the Obama administration plans to weigh in on the fight.

The surveillance flights over Idaho, skimming rivers of the region where Lewis and Clark guide Sacajawea was born more than two centuries ago, will be conducted from a BPA helicopter normally used to find hotspots in the BPA's 15,000 miles of transmission lines across Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

Similar cameras, made by Portland-based Flir Systems Inc. to register temperature differences to a half of a degree Celsius, are also used by law enforcement agencies to search for illegal immigrants near the U.S. border.

"It's used wherever people are looking for temperature differences," said Peter Stack, whose Airborne Integrations in Portland operates the cameras for the BPA. "Those could be people hiding in the bushes, animals hiding in the woods."

Or, places where cooling springs enter the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi - and where cows have munched sheltering streamside plants resulting in river hot spots. Both rivers are plagued by low stream flows and high temperatures. Thermal images from these flights are meant to help the BPA fulfill a 2008 pledge to Idaho to fix such problems.

Joe DeHerrera, a BPA biologist who grew up in Arco in the central Idaho mountains, was the one who suggested using the cameras to map areas of the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi Rivers near where he fished and hunted as a child.

"Thermal data will help us prioritize projects, but it also works in reverse, where we've done these projects already," DeHerrera said. "This thermal data should say, 'Look, it is working. It's doing what it should.' "

In addition to the thermal images, a digital TV camera will take a broader landscape video, to give biologists a better picture of places where tributaries of the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi have been diverted for irrigation or straightened.

Both sets of images will be combined in a digital map.

Groups such as the Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Program, based in Salmon, Idaho, will use the map to guide work with private landowners, such as restoring fish-sheltering oxbows, installing fences to keep livestock from waterways or redirecting irrigation-diverted streams, said Hans Koenig, the group's project coordinator.

"We've got a bunch in the hopper," Koenig said. "These flights will be one more tool in helping us identify the best potential projects."

Related Pages:
Biologists at Bonneville Track Heat around Salmon Habitat by Tom Banse, KUOW, 8/14/9

John Miller, Associated Press
Dam Operators Fly Idaho Rivers, Map Hot Spots
The Seattle Times, August 9, 2009

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