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Short Water Year has Montana Concerned

by Jim Mann
Columbia Basin Bulletin - January 12, 2001

A potential water crunch in the Columbia Basin has Montana officials concerned about downstream demands that could develop.

Water from Montana and Canada is considered the most valuable, both for the Columbia Basin's hydroelectric network, and for biological needs. The headwaters that cascade from western Montana's mountains can pass through as many as 15 hydro projects, and it can deliver biological benefits along the way.

But so far, mountain snowpack in western Montana is just 64 percent of average, and in many basins it is even lower. Continuing power demands combined with the light snowpack raises the possibility that the two headwater reservoirs -- Lake Koocanusa and Hungry Horse -- may not fully refill this year.

"It could be a pretty ugly year," said Brian Marotz, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries project leader who represents the state on many Columbia Basin management issues. "But we do have time for a recovery."

An ongoing shortage of power generation in the Northwest and California has put pressure on the basin's reservoirs. Another regional cold snap or two most likely translates to additional generation releases from Hungry Horse and Libby Dams.

And that, says Marotz, simply digs "deeper holes" in the reservoirs that will be more difficult to refill in the event of a light spring runoff.

"If things don't turn around," Marotz said, "there's a possibility that these projects won't refill."

Hungry Horse Reservoir is currently 45 feet below full pool, and it is nearly 19 feet lower than it was at this time last year.

"We're trying to hold our releases down to a minimum," said Ralph Carter, the Hungry Horse project superintendent. Normally, the Bureau of Reclamation must maintain minimum flows of 3,500 cubic feet per second in the Flathead River, just below the dam. But because of the dry conditions so far, the project has authorization to maintain minimum flows of 3,400 cfs.

By spring, the tug-of-war for water from northwest Montana will begin. There will be calls for higher releases to help white sturgeon in the lower Kootenai River. And in recent years, the National Marine Fisheries Service has called for "flow augmentation" from Montana to help threatened salmon species in the lower Columbia River. The theory is that slightly higher flow velocities in the lower river benefits migrating salmon.

At times, Marotz said, downstream salmon interests have had a nearly insatiable appetite for flow augmentation. It has resulted in dramatically fluctuating river and reservoir levels in Montana, ultimately ending with low reservoirs.

But Marotz says two things are different this year:

First, a basin system management plan, called a Biological Opinion, was approved with provisions that protect Montana's reservoirs and rivers.

Second, he said, evidence supporting the benefits of flow augmentation is eroding, and decision-makers are starting to recognize it.

"There's a paradigm shift," Marotz said. "There is a growing understanding that the benefits of flow augmentation are minuscule compared to the impacts to Montana's reservoirs and rivers."

Marotz and Stan Grace, one of Montana's representatives on the Northwest Power Planning Council, are both confident that the basinwide biological opinion has protections for Montana. But both are leery about how it will be implemented.

"I still think there's going to be political pressure to maintain higher flows for anadromous recovery," Marotz said.

The biological opinion clearly limits summer drawdowns from both reservoirs to 20 feet below full pool, Marotz said.

But if one of the reservoirs falls 10 feet short of refilling to full pool in a year when water supplies are short across the basin, he predicts there will be pressure to bypass the biological opinion and exceed the 20-foot limit.

That's an issue the state takes "very seriously," Marotz said.

Grace says power shortages from California to the Northwest are more likely to override biological protections.

"I've always had some concern on flow augmentation... in that it hasn't showed any real biological benefits," he said. "But I guess that flow augmentation for salmon, for anadromous fish, isn't my greatest concern right now. My greatest concern is avoiding biological damage to reservoirs, while keeping the lights on in the region."

Marotz is also concerned that federal agencies may drag their feet in implementing VARQ, a reservoir refill formula that calls for more conservative water management in dry years.

The BiOp calls for VARQ to be implemented at Libby Dam in 2002, and at Hungry Horse this year, but so far that hasn't happened.

Implementing VAR-Q is critical in avoid digging too deep into the Montana reservoirs, Marotz said.

Jim Mann
Short Water Year has Montana Concerned
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 12, 2001

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