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Feds Consider Restricting Dams to Help Salmon

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, April 28, 2000

Idaho may lose right to manage its own water

PASCO, Wash. — Federal officials may place restrictions on Idaho irrigation dams like Lucky Peak in the salmon protection plan slated for release in May.

If they do, farming, housing development and other activities that affect water quality or even raise its temperature could be regulated by the federal agency in charge of salmon recovery instead of by the state. And it could make it harder for state officials to challenge the transfer of water from Idaho reservoirs downstream to speed salmon flows.

“They are trying to take control of state water management through the Endangered Species Act,” said Lyn Tominaga, Idaho Waterusers Association policy analysis.

Ric Ilgenfritz, Columbia Basin coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, revealed the proposal Thursday under questioning from Republican U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage of Idaho during a House Resources subcommittee hearing.

The fisheries service plans to release a draft biological opinion on the federal hydropower dams May 22. Ilgenfritz acknowledged the agency was looking at adding irrigation dams and projects that reach all the way to the Wyoming border to the opinion, but he said the issue was still under discussion among federal officials.

“I wish I could be more specific,” he said.

Fisheries service officials said Wednesday they would recommend delaying a decision on breaching four hydroelectric power dams on the Snake River in Washington until they have tried alternatives for saving endangered salmon and steelhead. One of those alternatives is augmenting flows through the Snake dams by draining water from the Idaho reservoirs behind irrigation dams.

Each year Idaho already sends 427,000 acre-feet of water — 130.4 billion gallons — downstream for this purpose, enough to keep Niagara Falls rolling for 2Å days. , Idaho farmers now irrigate 3.6 million acres of cropland. But the fisheries service has suggested it may want another 1 million acre-feet. That could require drying up 643,000 acres, costing the Idaho economy $45 million to $210 million and 2,500 to 6,500 jobs, the U.S.Bureau of Reclamation estimated.

“Idaho is being asked to make tremendous sacrifices, at an immense financial cost, even though the actual biological conditions in the state have little to do with the salmon problem,” Chenoweth-Hage said.

Ilgenfritz said research shows increasing flows with Idaho water helps salmon.

“It’s a more obvious benefit for fall chinook and a less obvious benefit for spring-summer chinook,” he said.

Jim Anderson, a salmon biologist from the University of Washington, challenged that view. Increasing the flow of warm water from Brownlee Dam during the summer may actually hurt the salmon and make migration harder.

“Our model shows negligible benefits from flow augmentation,” he said.

But reducing summer temperatures in the Snake River could require regulating return flows from irrigation canals. Stream-side habitat programs could be required to restore shade trees to desert streams and canals.

In earlier documents, fisheries service officials recommended efforts to improve the quality and quantity of water flowing downstream from southern Idaho. Tominaga worries that if Idaho’s irrigation projects are placed under the biological opinion, those recommendations could become requirements.

Most of the hearing was devoted to alternatives to dam breaching and flow augmentation for saving salmon. The most popular with the congressmen was reducing the number of fish-eating Caspian terns living on islands in the Columbia downstream from Bonneville Dam near Portland.

A lawsuit by the Audubon Society prompted a federal judge to halt efforts to move the birds. The injunction was based in part on a scientific opinion that the predation of an estimated 600,000 juvenile wild salmon did not impact salmon recovery.

“How dare the federal government tell Idaho and the world that preventing the outright slaughter of hundreds of thousands of endangered young salmon in the Columbia River estuary will have no impact on the problem,” said Michael Bogert, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s counsel, “and then in the same breath tell us more water from our state is needed to get the fish out to sea.”

Salmon debate at a glance

What’s at stake? If the salmon go extinct, Idaho and the Pacific Northwest lose an icon of the area’s wild character that still provides millions of dollars to the region’s economy through fishing and tourism. If the dams are breached, shipping on the river to Lewiston would end, and the Pacific Northwest would lose 5 percent of its electric power sources, enough to power Seattle.

If the four Snake dams in Washington aren’t breached, harsh measures would be needed in other ways, including taking more water from Idaho reservoirs to speed flows through the dams, limits on development near salmon-spawning rivers, ending most fishing, closing hatcheries, restrictions on dredging and other activities in the Columbia River and enforced fish passage or removal of other regional dams, such as Idaho’s Hells Canyon complex.

What’s next?
The National Marine Fisheries Service will complete the All-H paper and issue a biological opinion on dam operations by May 22.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will announce its decision on the four Snake dams in late summer or early fall. It will take more comments and make a final decision next year.

Learn more
The Army Corps of Engineers’ draft environmental report and a draft of the fisheries service’s “All-H” position paper are available on the Internet at or go to or call 1-888-921-4886.

Rocky Barker
Feds Consider Restricting Dams to Help Salmon
The Idaho Statesman, April 28, 2000

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