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Saving Fall Chinook Could Be Costly

Rocky Barker, The Idaho Statesman - June 27, 1999

Often-overlooked species needs water at the same time Idaho farmers do

Saving the endangered Snake River fall chinook threatens to put thousands of Idaho farmers out of business and to boost Idaho Power Co.'s electric rates, not the lowest in the nation.

Fall chinook salmon have been merely a footnote in the decade-long debate over restoring ocean-going fish to Idaho's rivers. But recently released scienfific research shows thes fish benefit from flushing billions of gallons of Idaho water downstream. They need the water at the same time Idaho farmers need it to irrigate potatoes, sugar beets and other crops.

After 40 years of dam building, federal authorities could order Idaho Power to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to allow fall chinook to return to the Middle Snake River near Boise.

The licenses for Idaho Power's three Hells Canyon dams will expire in 2005. Under a 1986 law, the National Marine Fisheries Service can require Idaho Power to modify the dams so fish can pass through, no matter what the economic consequences.

That could lead Idaho Power to abandon the licenses for the dams that account for more than half of its electric generating capacity. Before that happens, the fisheries service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will make a recommendation on whether to breach the four other dams operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers downstream on the Snake in Washington. Breaching those dams would meet the fall chinook's habitat needs.

"If I was the owner of the Hells Canyon dams and I was looking at the need to relicense them in the next few years, I would be very interested in solving this problem downstream," said Will Stelle, the fisheries service's Northwest Region director and the point man for the Clinton administration on salmon.

These scenarios may seem outlandish. But Thursday, for the first time in history, federal officials will destroy a dam against its owner's will. Authorities in 1997 ordered the Edwards Dam near Augusta, Maine, removed to allow endangered Atlantic salmon and other fish to swim freely again up and down the Kennebec River.

That decision prompted Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, to introduce legislation earlier this year to limit the power of Stelle's agency and other federal agencies in relicensing proceedings. And it changed the balance between the competing values of harnessing rivers to generate cheap electricity and preseving their natural health.

"Its clear to me and many of my colleagues here in the Senate that hydropower is at risk," Craig said.

Idaho Power has stayed out of the debate over breaching four federal dams in Washington despite the links. Only a tiny amkount of its power comes from the federal dams -- 1.5 of all of Idaho's power -- but the reduced supply could increase the demand and the cost as the electricity industry moves toward deregulation of rates.

"You remove any large (electric) resource, and the region will suffer," said Jim Miller, Idaho Power vice president for generation.

Big water, late migrants
For 10,000 years, salmon have been migrating from the ocean and spawning in lakes, rivers and their tributaries in Idaho. Nez Perce, Shoshone, Paiute and Bannock fishermen speared, netted and trapped salmon in Idaho rivers for centuries.

More than 1 million salmon returned to the area above Hells Canyon each year before the arrival of settlers in the 1860s.

"Salmon are the sacred food, a gift from the creator," said Horace Axtell, leader of the Nez Perce Seven Drum Religion. "The creator made all these rivers and creeks for these fish to use, to come this far to give themselves to us."

Spring-summer chinook salmon and steelhead spawn in the headwaters and middle sections of tributaries of the Snake and their tributaties; they once spawned throughout the Boise River system. They remain in the streams where they hatch for an entire year. Then, when the snow melts and sends flood flows downriver in the spring, these year-old migrants ride the flow to the ocean.

Fall chinook are different. They spawn in the larger rivers, such as the Snake and the Columbia. Becaus these larger waters are warmer and have more nutrients, young fall chinook grow faster and begin migrating soon after they emerge from the gravel where they hatched.

That pushes their migration into the summer. Historically, when most of the fall chinook spawned in the Snake from Shosone Falls to Weiser, the young fish began migrating around June 1, catching the end of the high spring flows.

But today, fall chinook migrate later, after the high spring flows are done. The reason, said Ted Bjornn, a biologist at the University of Idaho, is that humans have dramatically altered their habitat.

When Swan Falls Dam was built on the Snake River in 1910, all of the spawning habitat above was cut off from the ocean. In 1957, more than 15,000 fall chinook were still spawning in and above Hells Canyon. In 1958, the world of the Snake River fall chinook changed dramatically. That's when Idaho Power began building Oxbow and Brownlee dams, two of the three Hells Canyonj dams.

The license for the dams required the company to build a system to get salmon up and down the river through the dams.

When salmon arrived at Oxbow Dam in August, a fish trap was under repair. Idaho Power officials dried up the Snake River for 60 miles while trying to fix it, stranding hundreds of fish in pools below. "When the bulk of the run came in October, the fish trap failed again, turning the area below the temporary dam into a death trap in which another 3,497 salmon died. By the time the "Oxbow incident" was over, another 7,000 fish had died.

The fall chinook run dropped to 2,400 in 1962. Eventually, Idaho Power gave up getting federal approval to replace the upriver runs with hatcheries and transplanted runs in other tributaries.

In 1973, the last fall chinook returned to Hells Canyon Dam.

Bad news, good news
As the salmon declined, southern Idaho's economy grew. Idaho Power offered its customers the lowest electric rates in the country $59.10 a month for the average household today. It enabled farmers to pump water to fields high above the river and powered the growth of Boise and other urban centers. Bronlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon Dam, completed in 1967, together produce 737 megawatts of electricity annually, enough to light 464,000 homes.

During the same period, three dams -- Ice Harbor in 1961, Lower Monumental in 1969 and Little Goose in 1970 -- were built on the Snake in Washington by the Army Corps of Engineers. The fourth, Lower Granite, just downstream from Lewiston, was completed in 1975. Those dams produced 1,200 megawatts annually, enough power to meet the needs of Seattle for a year. The power was marketed through public utilities in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana by the Bonneville Power Administration.

By 1990, only 78 fall chinook were spawnig naturally in all of the Snake River, and 494 returned to a hatchery in Washington.

That wake-up call led the fisheries service to protect Snake River fall chinook salmon under the Endangered Species Act in 1992.

Even though Idaho Power is responsible for the loss of historic habitat, it has played a major role in improvig the situation of the fall chinook in the 1990s. It voluntarily stabilized flows below Hells Canyon Dam in the fall at a cost of millions of dollars in lost power production, so the salmon's redds, or nests, are not dried up.

In 1998, 3,918 adult fall chinook were counted at Lower Granite Dam.

Today, Snake River fall chinook migrate from July through October, when the rivers are warmest. They spawn in different areas than they did histoically, including tghe colder Clearwater River. These fish don't grow as fast as their ancestors did in the warmer Middle Snake and have a harder time migrating to the ocean. Even the trip back to Idaho from the ocean, through waters often too hot for salmon to survive, is dramatically different than the conditions under which the fish evolved.

Salmon stocks across the Pacific Northwest are also depressed, in part because of a 20- to 25-year cycle in Pacific Ocean temperatures. These changes have favored salmon predators and reduced the availability of food across large areas where salmon migrate.

Some scientists suggest that these ocean conditions may not turn around again because of global warming, so some stoks of salmonwill become extinct no matter what is done. That makes some question whether trying to save all of the salmon is worth it.

Columbia River salmon have fared far better than those that have to negotiate the four extra dams on the Snake. The most successful have been the fall chinook that spawn in the Hanford Reach, the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia. This 51-mile stretch, just north of the columiba's confluence with the Snake, produces tens of thousands of adult fall chinook every year and the strongest commercial and sport fishery left in the Columbia Basin.

Salmon benefits
Even though the fall chinook presents a threat to many economic interests, its return offers promise to others. Silas Whitman, who heads the Neza Perce tribal fishery department, said restoration of fall chinook would improve the diet of tribal members. A fishery would add to the tourism dollars the tribe already is generating in its casinos.

Mitch Sanchotena of Boise, executive director of Idaho Steelhead and Salmon Unlimited, didn't fish for fall chinook as a kid. But today he and other Idaho salmon fishermen chase the fish all over the Pacific Northwest.

The stellhead season generates $90 million annually for Idaho in purchases of equipment, boats, motel rooms and meals. A chinook season similar to those in the 1960s could return $60 million more, according to private economist Don Reading.

"I think a fall chinook season will generate even more money, beause it would be mostly done from boats," he said.

Pat Ford of Boise, executive directore of Save Our Wild Salmon, said we have a moral responsibility to hand down to our children a better place to live. Restoring salmon is a part of that.

"Salmon are the best signal of the enduring productivity and health of the watershed where we live," he said.

The Pacific Northwest has only so much money and water for saving salmon, said Mike Field, and Idaho representative to the Northwest Power Planning Council, an advisory panel that oversees fish and wildlife spending by the Bonneville Power Administration.

"I think we have to prioritize," said Field, who grew up on a farm in southern Idaho. "Idaho has the habitat for spring and summer migrants; historically the Hanford Reach is the habitat for the falls.

What sets fall chinook apart
Fall chinook pose a unique threat to southern Idaho because their spawning habitat is limited and because they need water at the same time of year that farmers use the Snake River for irrigation.

Scientists say there is ample habitat for endangered spring-summer chinook and steelhead in the Salmon, Clearwater and Grand Ronde river systems. No one know whether fall chinook have enough spawning and rearing habitat to reach a self-sustaining population.

There are only two places they can get more habitat. One is in the downstream sections covered by reservoirs behind the lower Snake dams. The other is historic spawning grounds above the three Hells Canyon dams.

Scientists don't know yet how many shallow graveled areas with clean water are left above Hells Canyon. However, the fisheries service says the 70-mile stretch now occupied by the four dams in Washington would proved fall chinook with 70 percent more spawning and reating habitat.

That's why a 22-member science team said in December that breaching those dams would increase the fall chinook's odds of recovery to 99 percent. Since 80 percent of the historic habitat was cut off by the Hells Canyon dams, removing the Washington dams would relieve some of the pressure to force passage at the Hells Canyon dams.

"If the lower Snake River dams don't come out, you need to look elsewhere, and that elsewhere is where they spawned historically," said Ritchie Graves, a fisheries service biologist working on dam relicensing issues.

Idaho's water
The second reason the fall chinook present a unique threat is that they are the only one of the salmon species that science shows benefits from flushing Idaho water downstream.

If the fisheries service and the Corps decide not to breach the Washington dams, then they need to make the current system work better. That means flushing billions of gallons of water from Idaho to aid the migration of juvenile salmon.

The fisheries sevice is studying the effects of moving an additional million acre-feet of water dwon the Snake River. That's enough water to keep Niagara Falls running for six days.

During the spring runoff, even that much water is a drop in the bucket. But recent studies show that in the summer, when flows are low and water temperatures high, the additional 427,000 acre-feet of water now flushed from Idaho has a measurable benefit to fall cdhinook, said Ed Bowles, Idaho Department of Fish and Game salmon and steelhead manager.

Scientists don't know whether the benefits come from cooling the water or increasing the flow. In any event, taking 1 million more acre-feet of water from Idaho annually would force the federal government to dry up 643,000 of the 1.4 million acres irrigated in souther Idaho, the Bureau of Reclamation estimates.

If that happened, Idaho would lose $45 million to $210 million in income and from 2,500 to 6,500 jobs, according to the bureau of Reclamation.

Because fall chinook and farmers need the water at the same time, many of the canals would have no water in dry years, said Sherl chapman, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association, which represents canal companies. Buying the farmland would cost taxpayers more than $500 million, based on studies by irrigation groups.

"If you look at taking water for fish, the fall chinook will be as damaging as any other because of the timing," Chapman said.

But Chapman isn't ready to support breaching dams. Once one dam comes down, environmentalists will move to the next, he said. And he's convinced fedral officials will continue to grab for Idaho's water.

Warren Tolmie, a retired farmer from Caldwell who serves as a director of the Wilder Irrigation Districe Board, disapproves of swinging the balance away from farming to fish.

"You don't remember what it was like, takin a piece of land out of the dirt and making it productive land," Tolmie said. "I do. It just burns the hell out of me they're now going to take it out of production for salmon."


Fall chinook salmon

Fall chinook used to spawn in the Snake River and the lower end of tributaries like the Boise and Weiser in the tens of thousands. Through most of the century, sportfishermen snubbed them for spring and summer chinook available in the river headwaters in the mountains. the fall chinook spawned in the Homedale area as late as the 1950s and then died, eaten only by dogs and wildlife. But they were not "dog salmon" to the Nez Perce Indians. For them, these huge fish provided more than sustenance.

"Salmon are sacred food, a gift from the creator. The creator made all these rivers and creeks for these fish to use, to come this far to give themselves to us."

-- Horace Axtell, leader of the Nez Perce Seven Drum religion.

The Hells Canyon dams blocked fall chinook from their prime historic spawning habitat from Swan Falls Dam to Weiser in 1958. Now, Idaho Power must apply for new licenses for those dams by 2003. Meanwhile, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will decide this year or next whether to breach four federal dams on the lower Snake River in Washington.

Salmon Life Cycle

Adult Snake River fall chinook enter the Columbia River in July and migrate into the Snake River from August through October.

Fall chinook salmon spawn in the Snake River below Hells Canyon Dam and the lower reaches of the Clearwater, Grande Ronde, Imnaha, Salmon and Tucannon rivers from October through November.

Baby salmon emerge from March through April. Downstream migration generally begins within several weeks of emergence.

Juveniles rear in backwaters and shallow areas through mid-summer before migrating to the ocean. There, they spend one to four years before beginning their spawning migration.

Many have a stake in salmon decision

Will Stelle is the Pacific Northwest Director of National Marine Fisheries Service. NMFS is the agency responsible for saving salmon under the federal Endangered Species Act. Stelle can order Idaho Power Co. to pass fish through its dams and recommend to Congress it breach four dams on the Snake River in Washington.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is a five-member panel that administers a licensing program for all non-federal hydropower dams under the authority of the Federal Power Act. It issues licenses for 30 to 50 years to companies and local governments to use the public's water for private gain. In 1986, the Electric Consumer Protection Act revised the relicensing process to give greater weight to environmental concerns.

Idaho Power Co. provides electricity to more than 372,000 industrial, retail and agricultural customers across southern Idaho. Hydropower from 11 dams produces 60 percent of Idaho Power's electricity. All of the dams will need new licenses by 2010.

Rocky Barker
Saving Fall Chinook Could Be Costly
The Idaho Statesman - June 27, 1999

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