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Reservoir Levels Low After Early Runoff

by Associated Press
The Oregonian, July 21, 2000

A dry summer prompts concerns about possible harm
to migrating fish and less hydropower revenue

KENNEWICK, Wash. -- In the reservoirs behind the region's massive hydropower dams, it's beginning to look a lot like next month.

An early spring runoff means reservoir levels behind Columbia River Basin dams are lower than they normally are in late August, causing worries about lost hydropower revenues and potential harm to migrating fish.

"It's going to be a long summer," said Bob Heinith, hydro program coordinator at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in Portland.

After four good water flow years in the Columbia and Snake river system, weather conditions this spring led to an unusual runoff that peaked earlier than usual.

"This is the first year when we have come into a summer near average and had it go dry on us," said Cindy Henriksen, chief of the Corps of Engineers Reservoir Control Center in Portland. "So this is somewhat of a new experience for us."

What started as a fairly normal "water year" turned sharply for the worse in May and June with dry weather across the region, Henriksen said.

At the start of June, summer water projections at The Dalles Dam were for 97 percent of normal. A month later, they were for 90 percent of normal.

"This year we have had a very dry June, so many of the reservoirs did not fill completely," Henriksen said, noting that river managers made a "conscious decision" to use storage water for fish in the early summer rather than late summer.

Every year, river managers juggle competing power, recreation, irrigation and fish demands for water.

This summer, with most of the region's large reservoirs drained nearly as far as possible, that's not as easy.

"This is obviously causing the region . . . to rethink how to allocate the water for the remainder of the summer," Henriksen said.

"We're just stuck in a horrendous situation," Heinith said. "The conditions we are seeing out there are normally what we would see in late August. We are a month ahead in terms of temperatures."

High temperatures harm returning fish by sapping their spawning strength and making it easier for disease to spread through the population.

Heinith predicts that by September, the flow at Lower Granite Dam near Lewiston will be less than half of target flows to make sure the river is hospitable for migrating salmon.

"This is the first year that I can recall where we are not going to meet spring flow targets as well as the summer (targets)," Heinith said.

"We have this awful bargain in years like this," said Tim Stearns, director of the National Wildlife Foundation's natural resource center in Seattle. "Do you help spring fish, or do you save it for fall fish?"

Stearns said it's not clear if there will be enough water in the Snake system to cool the river for returning adults in late August and September.

Northwest tribes advocate saving water for the fall to support the large tribal and sport fishery.

Heinith and Stearns predicted the region would see a decrease in salmon returns in three and four years, when this year's fish return to spawn.

Associated Press
Reservoir Levels Low After Early Runoff
The Oregonian, July 21, 2000

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