Biologists at Bonneville
by Tom Banse
Bet you didn't know the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) has its own air force. The regional electricity wholesaler normally uses its four helicopters and two airplanes to patrol and troubleshoot its transmission lines. But this week (August 10), BPA diverted one of those helicopters to something new. The chopper crew flew reconnaissance over salmon streams using a thermal imaging camera. The video will be used to help target millions of dollars of salmon restoration spending. That's money that ultimately comes from ratepayers like you. Correspondent Tom Banse went aloft to get our story.
Helicopter pilot Eric Rairdon couldn't ask for nicer weather to fly low and slow down lush, irrigated valleys in the otherwise arid mountains of central Idaho.
Rairdon: "It's an absolutely perfect day to be flying."
His chopper is on a heat-seeking mission. There's a black globe under the helicopter's nose. It houses an infrared camera made by Portland-based FLIR Systems. Camera operator Dave Cascadden explains that he hits record when the chopper banks over the headwaters of the Pahsimeroi River.
Cascadden: "The coldest things in the screen will be the water and they show us in black. Then most of the desert ground that we were cruising over shows up white hot."
Salmon and trout need clean, cold water, and shady banks to survive and breed. Erosion, overgrazing of stream banks, and irrigation withdrawals work against that. BPA biologist Joe DeHerrera came up with the idea to buzz the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi Rivers.
DeHerrera: "It tells folks on the ground, the biologists who are trying to develop their strategy of project proposals, that maybe here's an area where we need to fence, create some riparian vegetation to help cool that off. Conversely, if we find a spot that is really cold water influencing the system, we may say that we need to protect that."
Bonneville spends a staggering amount of money on habitat restoration to offset the impact of the federal hydropower system. Fish and wildlife projects account for roughly one-third of its wholesale rates. Eventually those costs filter down to our electric bills.
DeHerrera: "We can do a better job of selecting projects for funding with this technology."
In this case, the flight crew observes the biggest issue for salmon here might not be water temperature. In some stretches of river, there's no water in the river at all.
Sound: "That diversion channel has drawn off the majority of the water. The old original channel looks to be dry."
The helicopter overflights drew suspicion from some quarters. Joe DeHerrera took pains to say he's not here to take away anybody's water. He says agencies want to work cooperatively with ranchers and farmers to make their irrigation more efficient.
Three hours away in Boise, Bill Sedivy has a different issue. Sedivy directs the environmental group Idaho Rivers United. He suspects the chopper is a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from what he considers to be a bigger problem: Federal dams further down on the Snake River.
Sedivy: "To think we're going to fix the Northwest salmon problem by fixing a few miles of habitat in central Idaho where there is already hundreds of miles of pristine habitat available to these fish is like thinking you could cure a brain tumor with aspirin. The arithmetic just doesn't add up."
Bonneville Power spokesman Michael Milstein responds that degraded stream habitat rightly deserves increased attention.
Milstein: "Clearly, the biologists believe that there's a lot of potential in these tributaries. It's not to say that this is the only thing that needs to be done to help salmon at all. I mean, improving the situation at the dams is important and we're doing that. But it doesn't matter how many fish get through the dams if they don't have a healthy river to come back to and spawn."
Milstein says this aerial reconnaissance was a test. If the fish biologists find the thermal video images truly useful, BPA hopes to fly its helicopters over other key watersheds in the Columbia Basin. I'm Tom Banse in Challis, Idaho.
Dam Operators Fly Idaho Rivers, Map Hot Spots by John Miller, The Seattle Times, 8/9/9
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