Brownlee Boat Launches will be
by Jayson Jacoby
Idaho Power Company will spill more water from Brownlee Reservoir this summer than last to help juvenile salmon, but the reservoir's boat ramps should stay submerged at least through early August.
The Boise company started releasing more water from the reservoir last week, Idaho Power spokesman Dennis Lopez said.
He said Idaho Power officials agreed to dump 237,000 acre-feet of Brownlee water over a 50-day period to help push young salmon down the Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific Ocean.
Biologists say these "fish flushes" can speed the salmon's journey through the slack water behind the several reservoirs between Hells Canyon Dam and the Pacific.
Lopez said Idaho Power officials predict Brownlee's water level will drop by about two feet per week, reaching 18 feet below full by Aug. 7.
At that level the reservoir's main boat ramps will still be accessible.
Brownlee will remain at about five feet below full through the holiday weekend, Lopez said.
Reservoir levels after Aug. 7 will depend in part on the weather.
During heat waves Idaho Power has to push more water through Brownlee Dam's turbines to satiate the gluttonous appetites of tens of thousands of air-conditioners.
The fish flush also will affect water levels in the free-flowing Snake River below Hells Canyon Dam, Lopez said.
Flows could fluctuate from about 8,500 cubic feet per second to as high as 20,000 between now and Aug. 7, he said.
Last summer Idaho Power sold 100,000 acre-feet of Brownlee water to the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) for $4 million. With that water available, BPA didn't have to spill as much water through three downstream dams to aid salmon.
But Idaho Power won't get paid for the water it releases this summer, Lopez said.
He said the company pledged to release the 237,000 acre-feet of water as part of an "interim operating agreement" with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and with Native American tribes and conservation groups including American Rivers and Idaho Rivers United.
Those two groups sued FERC in 2003, alleging the federal agency failed to require that Idaho Power operate Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams in a way that protected threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead runs.
Lopez said Idaho Power officials hope the interim agreement proves the company is committed to protecting salmon and steelhead, and that the deal will help the company obtain a new license from FERC for the three-dam complex.
"I think we've always been committed to salmon," Lopez said.
Idaho Power's current 50-year license for the trio of dams expires this month.
The company applied for a new license several years ago, but the application is still pending. Lopez said Idaho Power can continue to operate the three dams under terms of the current license even after it expires, although on a year-to-year basis.
Lopez said the company has spent about $58 million since the early 1990s to prepare its license application.
For several years after 1992, when the federal government listed runs of Snake River salmon and steelhead as threatened or endangered, Idaho Power agreed to conduct fish flushes each summer, sometimes starting as early as June.
Those flushes, combined with heavy snowpacks that forced Idaho Power to lower the reservoir in spring for flood control, left many boat ramps stranded above the water line.
The widely fluctuating water levels also reduced populations of crappie, bass and other fish that had earned Brownlee a reputation in the 1980s as one of the hottest fishing holes in the West.
As that reputation cooled during the mid 1990s, angler-dependent businesses in towns near the reservoir, including Richland and Huntington, suffered.
The situation has improved, however, during the past few years, with most boat ramps remaining underwater at least through July, and in some cases later.
Lopez said BPA compensated Idaho Power for the 1990s fish flushes by supplying the company with electricity in amounts equal to the power the company could have produced had it directed that water through the Brownlee Dam turbines instead of releasing it to help salmon.
But when that deal with BPA expired a few years ago, Idaho Power stopped releasing water during summer to aid salmon, Lopez said.
What's not certain is whether Idaho Power will spill water for salmon after 2005.
Lopez said the interim agreement, which is intended to regulate Idaho Power's operations until FERC issues the company's a new long-term license, includes the summer fish flush.
But Lopez declined to speculate whether FERC will make mandatory fish flushes a condition in that long-term license.
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