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Ecology and salmon related articles

Biologists Focus on Revitalizing the River

by Idaho Power
Connections, August 2014

Scientists from Idaho Power and The Freshwater Trust hope
to make the Snake River better for fish, wildlife -- and people.

An aerial view of Hells Canyon Dam on the Snake River, the border between Oregon and Idaho. When Julia Bond stands on the banks of the Snake River downstream from Marsing, she sees a river barely moving, exhausted from the work it has done since dropping out of the Teton Mountains in western Wyoming several hundred miles upstream.

"When looking at this section of the Snake River, I can barely tell which direction it's flowing. We know the system is not functioning the way we would like it to. It's not a healthy, productive ecosystem," said Bond, an ecologist with The Freshwater Trust, based in Portland.

Idaho Power is working with The Freshwater Trust to develop a plan for the Snake River Stewardship Program to improve conditions in the river as part of efforts to renew our license to operate three hydroelectric dams in Hells Canyon.

One part of the program is to change the shape of the river channel, allowing the river to run faster and deeper in key stretches. That will keep the water cooler, reduce sediment buildup and prevent aquatic plants from choking some sections. The plan also envisions restoring stream-bank vegetation on key tributaries of the Snake, which also will help keep the water cool and create habitat for fish like trout and mountain whitefish that prefer lower temperatures. Landowners also can play a key role in helping to reduce sediment flowing into the river.

A Working River

The three-dam Hells Canyon Complex, along with 14 other hydroelectric projects Idaho Power operates on the Snake River and its tributaries, provides our customers with clean, renewable energy at a lower cost than any other resource in our portfolio. Having a plan for improving river conditions upstream of Brownlee Reservoir is an important step in getting a new federal license for the hydroelectric complex.

The stretch of the Snake River between American Falls and Farewell Bend, often referred to as the Mid-Snake, serves many needs, from irrigation to hydro power to providing water for cities and industry. All that work has reduced the river's ability to serve an- other important role -- providing

Bayha and Wright islands, downstream from Walter's Ferry (bluefish locates: these islands are about 150 miles upstream of Hells Canyon Dam complex), would be expanded and the adjacent river channel narrowed and deepened as part of a pilot project designed to look at the impact of river flows on fish habitat and downstream water temperatures. Wright Island habitat for fish and other aquatic species, such as the Snake River Physa, an endangered snail.

In the Mid-Snake, the water runs warm and shallow. Sediment settles out of the water and into the streambed, filling in the gravel necessary for native whitefish and sturgeon to spawn. Aquatic vegetation grows into large mats by late summer, further slowing the river and making navigation difficult. Neither the silt nor the plants favor the tiny snails that Idaho Power Biologist Barry Bean spends painstaking hours looking for.

"We need to identify how many snails are in the area to get a permit for river rehabilitation work from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," Bean said. Although the project will disrupt the river for a brief period, the habitat improvements will be good for the snails' long-term survival.

Work to Do

There's no guarantee the work will be done. Idaho Power is still negotiating with state and federal agencies over how best to meet water quality goals. If the plan clears all of the regulatory hurdles, it could mean narrowing and deepening the river channel in key sections, such as the stretch near the Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge, just upstream of Marsing. Idaho Power and

The Freshwater Trust have been studying Bayha Island as a likely test site to see how deepening the river and narrowing the channel by expanding the island and the neighboring shoreline will help restore many of the river's natural functions. Wetlands would be expanded, benefitting birds and other wildlife.

That doesn't mean turning back the clock to before the days of farming and hydro power. "We recognize that there are things we cannot change, but that doesn't mean we can't have a high-functioning ecosystem," Bond said.

That will make the river a better place for fish, waterfowl and snails. And people. Boating and fishing would be improved. A cleaner river could mean farmers spend less time clearing aquatic plants from their irrigation pumps.

"As someone who lives in that area, I'm looking forward to some of the changes we're talking about," said Bean, a native of Homedale. "It would be great for the resource."

Idaho Power
Biologists Focus on Revitalizing the River
Connections, August 2014

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