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Hearing Focuses on Reduced Spring Flow

by Dan Hansen, staff writer
The Spokesman Review, November 13, 2002

Power producers could push water through dams when demand is highest

There's a new tug in the tug of war for water.

In a debate that pits some interests in Idaho and Montana against some in Oregon and Washington, the Northwest Power Planning Council proposes reducing the required amount of water flowing down the Columbia and Snake rivers in spring.

The proposal could change based on testimony collected between now and Jan. 10. That includes a public hearing tonight in Coeur d'Alene.

The change would give power producers greater freedom to push water through dams at times when electricity is in highest demand. It could provide enough additional electricity to light about 23,000 homes, according to council figures.

The change may also preclude the federal government from claiming more water now used by irrigators in places like southern Idaho. That's been a contentious issue, sparking state defiance on one side and environmental lawsuits on the other.

Montana fisheries biologists say the change would also help some inland species of fish, by limiting extreme fluctuations below storage reservoirs on the Flathead and Kootenai rivers. Those fish include some -- like bull trout and sturgeon -- that are protected under the Endangered Species Act and others -- like burbot and cutthroat trout -- that are suffering but haven't received legal protection.

The release of big water in spring is intended to mimic nature. It helps baby salmon and steelhead make their journey from the Inland Northwest to the Pacific Ocean. Critics of the council's proposed changes warn that salmon will suffer if the minimum flows -- which often aren't met anyway -- are further reduced.

"These (existing) targets are not pulled out of thin air," said Eric Bloch, one of Oregon's two council members. " (They) reflect the minimum velocities and flows that the regional biologists have said salmon need to avoid great harm.

"So, if you're not meeting those flows, you are hurting the salmon."

Of the eight council members, Bloch alone voted against the draft proposal. Others -- including Spokane's Tom Karier -- contend that scientists have yet to prove the benefits of increased flows in spring.

However, there are other divisions within the council.

In addition to reducing the amount of water in the rivers, the four members from Montana and Idaho wanted to reduce the amount of water spilled over dams rather than sent through turbines. Washington and Oregon members voted against that suggestion, so the proposal instead calls for studies at each dam to determine the ideal amount of spill to help migrating fish.

"The argument isn't that we don't know (spill is) beneficial," Karier said. "The question is, can you get the same benefit with slightly different levels."

If not, Karier said, then the spill should remain unchanged.

The proposal also calls for eliminating the April 10 deadline for refilling Lake Roosevelt and reservoirs in Montana after winter drawdowns. That deadline was designed to ensure there is plenty of water to release from the reservoirs once the salmon migration begins.

Karier and Washington's other council member, Larry Cassidy, want the deadline to stand at Lake Roosevelt. They were outvoted by the three other states.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Bill Tweit said eliminating the deadline could pit the interests of salmon against those of trout, walleye and other game fish in Lake Roosevelt.

"We recognize the importance of the resident fish in Lake Roosevelt and we want to manage (water) to their benefit, as well," Tweit said. "But our first priority is still those endangered fish downstream."

In Idaho, the issue is largely one of irrigation.

Each year since 1992, the Idaho Legislature has reluctantly given its approval to irrigators to sell 427,000 acre feet of water to the federal government rather than using it to grow crops. That water is left in the Snake River to benefit salmon.

But Idaho has made clear that it doesn't like the water going to fish. State lawmakers passed a resolution in 1996 saying it does no good.

The National Marine Fisheries Service in 1995 called for Idaho irrigators to release another 1 million acre feet of water to help salmon. But the fisheries service has never pressed the issue, prompting environmentalists to sue in 2000.

Nor are environmentalists happy with the current proposal to allow lower water in spring.

"In general, the council is proposing that we take some significant steps in the wrong direction," said Andrew Englander of Save Our Wild Salmon.

Dan Hansen, Staff writer Hearing Focuses on Reduced Spring Flow
Spokesman Review, November 13, 2002

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