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Salmon Recovery Plan Hits a Snag

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, March 22, 2005

Salmon advocates told a federal judge Monday fish should come first when deciding how to allocate scarce water this summer.

If the judge agrees, it could ground barge traffic in lower Granite Reservoir, reduce power production and dry up irrigated farm land as officials scramble to find more water to send down river.

"There will be some negatives," said Bert Bowler, a biologist with Idaho Rivers United at Boise. "There will be hydropower loss if this spill regime is implemented and stress and strain in flow augmentation. If you get much below minimum operating pool there would probably be some slowdown or even shutdown of transportation in Lower Granite (reservoir)."

The coalition of environmental groups has pending litigation seeking to overturn the federal government's salmon recovery plan, known as a biological opinion.

Monday's briefs, addressed to presiding Judge James Redden at Portland, Ore., describe how coalition members would like to see the Snake and Columbia river dams operated if the government's plan is overturned.

The groups asked Redden to spill water 24 hours a day at all Snake and Columbia river dams and to take other measures that would increase water velocity in the Snake by 10 percent and the Columbia by 8 percent. The summertime operations are designed to help juvenile fall chinook.

"We don't want to see hardships placed on any particular community," said John Kober of the National Wildlife Federation at Seattle. "At the same time we need to do all we can to help fish in a particularly difficult and potentially damaging year."

The briefs do not say how the government might accomplish the increase in water velocity but Bowler said it would likely happen through a combination of drawdowns and flow augmentation. Both strategies would be tough in what is expected be a summer of record or near record low flows in the Snake and Columbia rivers.

Bowler suggested Lower Granite Reservoir could be lowered to 10 feet below a level known as minimum operating pool. That is the lowest the water level can go and still allow the adult fish ladder at Lower Granite Dam to operate. Bowler said other dams on the Snake River could probably stay at their minimum operating pool levels -- the lowest level the water can be and still maintain normal dam and navigation operations.

The drawdowns could lower the reservoir behind Ice Harbor Dam below the minimum level at which pumps can draw water for irrigation.

Redden is expected to rule on the status of the federal government's salmon recovery measures in May or June. He is the judge who ruled in 2003 the government's salmon plan did not do enough to protect threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.

The government released a new plan last year that says the dams, if improved at a cost of $6 billion over 10 years, will not pose a threat to the existence of the fish.

If Redden throws out the government's current plan he could consider the advice of the salmon advocates. But he could also allow the federal government to operate the dams under a former plan while a new one is written.

The salmon groups are continuing to press for the removal of the four lower Snake River dams. They say the government could improve railroad transportation, invest in alternative energy, build new pumps at Ice Harbor and breach the dams for less than $6 billion.

"At $60 million a year we feel like we have a fairly good resource to accomplish that with if the powers that be are so inclined," said Kober.

Eric Barker
Salmon Recovery Plan Hits a Snag
Lewiston Tribune, March 22, 2005

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