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Commentaries and editorials

Montanans Praise Council's Mainstem Efforts

by Jim Mann
Columbia Basin Bulletin - November 1, 2002

The Northwest Power Planning Council draft mainstem amendments are getting praise in Montana, where they're regarded as a policy step toward ending a long-standing conflict over federal dam operations in northwest Montana.

The Council's proposed amendments to its fish and wildlife program could, among other things, alter dam operations to benefit Montana fisheries while still delivering water for migrating salmon in the lower Columbia River Basin.

The Council proposes releasing "flow augmentation" water from Hungry Horse and Libby dams over a longer period, from May through September. For years, water releases have been increased in August, a practice that has been controversial because of impacts on river and reservoir fisheries and habitat during the most biologically productive time of year.

Critics have contended the impacts above and below the Montana dams have been substantial, while the benefits of the sudden pulses of water have been questionable.

"What we're trying to avoid is a second, unnatural peak in flows after the spring runoff period," said Brian Marotz, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist who monitors Columbia Basin hydroelectric operations.

"In general, I'm really happy with what's being proposed," Marotz said of the recommendations championed by Montana and Idaho members of the Council.

Lincoln County Commissioner Rita Windom also was pleased with the proposals, which will go through a public review process that concludes Jan. 14.

"I think they've put a lot of thought into those amendments, and it's the best thing I've seen in a long time as far as the operation of Libby and Hungry Horse goes," said Windom, who has been active on the matter. "It would eliminate a lot of those really high flows and make the river and reservoir more stable. It would not only benefit the fish and the environment, it would benefit recreation."

Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, said he has yet to review the council's proposals. But his organization has long supported the state's position on flow augmentation.

"I think it's reasonable to say that native fish -- bull trout, cutthroats and sturgeon -- don't benefit from a rising hydrograph in August," he said.

It's unclear whether the Council's plan, if adopted, would be implemented by federal agencies that control the reservoirs.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency in charge of salmon recovery, is guided primarily by "biological opinions" developed after a two-year scientific and public review process. Those documents essentially guide reservoir operations to continue with flow augmentation.

"The Power Planning Council really can't change the biological opinions. But what they can do is capitalize on the fact that the biological opinions are intended to be living documents that can change as new information comes to light," Marotz said. "If there's an opportunity to improve conditions for other listed, resident fish with no impacts to anadromous fish restoration by making a change, they can do that."

Jim Ruff, the National Marine Fisheries Service's branch chief of the Columbia River Power System, said the agency will wait and see what kind of fish and wildlife program the Council develops.

"We're encouraging the Council to continue with its mainstem amendment process, and develop a fish and wildlife program that's acceptable to all four Northwest states," he said. "We're hoping it will provide a healthy discussion of issues and any new scientific information that may come to light."

The Council will hold hearings throughout the Columbia Basin and solicit public comments through Jan. 14.

The proposed amendments are posted on the Internet at:

Jim Mann
Montanans Praise Council's Mainstem Efforts
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 1, 2002

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