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Region's Juggling Act Never Ends

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, March 9, 2001

Experts map strategy for balancing power demand, water supply and fish management

Managing fish, water and power this year is like walking a tightrope. It's one step at a time, and one false step could prove disastrous.

State, federal and tribal salmon managers met Wednesday in Portland, Ore., where they had planned to map out a strategy for water management for the rest of the season. Instead, the biologists, hydrologists and economists spent more than three hours debating the best way to keep threatened chum salmon nests below Bonneville Dam under water.

The chum have benefited from the Northwest's power crisis. Electricity shortages have kept water pumping through turbines at Grand Coulee Dam, and that has provided the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers enough water to pass through Bonneville Dam and the redds watered.

Last week the salmon managers decided to reduce the elevation of the water below the dam from 11.7 feet to 11.5 feet. Wednesday, they decided to go to 11.3 feet for 18 hours a day and back up to 11.5 feet for six hours.

Doing that will expose the redds but keep them wet enough that the developing fish will survive. During the six hours the redds are under water, fry will be able to emerge from their eggs and enter the river.

But chum-friendly flows are expected to end as soon as the reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam reaches an elevation of 1,220 feet. Officials at the Bonneville Power Administration say it needs to keep enough water behind the dam to quickly respond to power emergencies. But ironically, cutting off the flows at Grand Coulee could pitch the region into a power shortage that could lead to an emergency declaration.

Power supplies are so tight that every watt lost has to be replaced. So, as soon as flows from Grand Coulee end, releases from reservoirs elsewhere will have to come on line. That likely will mean more water will be evacuated from Libby and Hungry Horse reservoirs in Montana. But it could also lead to more water leaving Dworshak Dam at Ahsahka.

To help another run of fish, water may be spilled over Bonneville Dam this weekend to help 5.2 million fall chinook from the Spring Creek Hatchery make their way past the dam and to the Columbia River estuary. Fish managers asked for 10 days of flow but likely will receive just 24 hours.

The Spring Creek Hatchery produces the Thule run of fall chinook that return to the Columbia River and provides angling opportunities in the river and in the ocean.

The group of salmon managers will meet again next week to work on longer-term planning. They will try to figure out how to provide flow augmentation for juvenile salmon and steelhead on their way to the ocean while still providing BPA with enough power to keep the lights on and the bills paid.

Dworshak Reservoir has just a 75 percent chance of reaching an elevation of 1,580 feet -- 20 feet below full pool -- by June. But Dworshak is far better off than Hungry Horse and Libby Reservoirs that have a 25 percent and 37 percent chance of partially refilling.

The salmon managers want to hold as much water as possible behind Dworshak Dam so it can be used later to help spring and summer migrants make it to the ocean.

The Bureau of Reclamation does not know where it will find the 427,000 acre feet of Idaho water that is used for flow augmentation each year.

Most of that water is usually rented from farmers but low snowpacks and reservoirs means farmers are not likely to have excess water.

"It's going to be a struggle," said Pat McGrane, of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation at Boise.

"We don't know at this time where we are going to get all the water. We are scrambling to find the 427,000 acre feet."

Steve Pettit of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston said salmon managers are becoming increasingly skeptical that the hydro system will be managed to the benefit of fish this year. The Bonneville Power Administration is sending strong signals that he's right.

For the second time this year, a top official from BPA said Wednesday that fish-friendly flows may be scrapped this spring and summer in order to keep the agency solvent and meet the regions power demands.

Eric Barker
Region's Juggling Act Never Ends
Lewiston Tribune, March 9, 2001

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