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Drawdown Debate at Dworshak Continues

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, June 6, 2002

Reservoir is likely to fill but question is for how long

OROFINO--State, tribal and federal salmon and water managers agree Dworshak Reservoir is likely to fill this summer, but how long it remains full has yet to be determined.

"The signs are good," said Rudd Turner of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Reservoir Control Center in Portland. "Things have warmed up and we are starting to get a pretty good runoff."

The fish and water managers met Tuesday to discuss plans for fish-aiding releases of water from Dworshak Reservoir this summer.

Idaho and the Nez Perce tribe once again pressed upon the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service their desire to keep Dworshak Reservoir full longer so more water is available in September and October to help returning adult steelhead and fall chinook.

Water from Dworshak Dam and Reservoir has become a well-used tool in the battle to save threatened fall chinook.

Each summer the reservoir is lowered 80 feet as salmon managers use the water to cool the lower Snake River and help flush juvenile fall chinook to the sea.

The drawdown generally begins soon after the Fourth of July holiday and runs until the end of August.

But Idaho, the tribe and local communities have protested the annual drawdowns in part because they negatively impact recreation at the reservoir when the receding shoreline leaves popular camping spots high and dry and lengthens boat ramps.

Orofino chiropractor and chamber of commerce member Dennis Harper called it a food-on-the-table issue and said the federal agencies should pay more attention to the needs of local people.

"The focus has been lost on our local area and it's getting hammered," he said.

The drawdowns also leave little to no water available for release in the fall to induce returning adult steelhead and salmon to move quickly up the Snake and Clearwater rivers.

Paul Wagner of the National Marine Fisheries Service at Portland said his agency is handcuffed by the Endangered Species Act and can give little attention to issues other than doing what is best for salmon.

"That is when NMFS enters the picture -- when things are about to flame out."

Wagner says research shows a strong correlation between high flows, cool water temperatures and turbidity and the number of juvenile fish that survive at least to Lower Granite Dam.

Because of that, salmon mangers have used water stored in Dworshak and other reservoirs to manipulate flows and temperature. Dworshak water is cooler and thus more desirable in the summer when temperatures in the Snake River often exceed 68 degrees and become dangerous for salmon and steelhead.

The management of the river system is guided by the Technical Management Team, a collection of state and federal salmon and water managers that meets weekly.

The team decides when flows from Dworshak and other reservoirs should begin and recommends river operations to the so-called action agencies, the corps, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration that have the final say on river operations.

In the past few years, the state and tribe have worked together to try to keep more water in the reservoir. The two entities have developed and pushed their own reservoir operation plan and have refused to grant a waiver to the corps that would allow it to exceed water quality standards for dissolved gas when water is being evacuated from the reservoir. That means at times the corps can not dump water as quickly as it would like.

Dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers have lengthened the time it takes juvenile salmon and steelhead to reach the ocean. The effect is particularly pronounced on fall chinook that migrate later in the summer when flows are warmer and slower. Some of the dams, such as the Hells Canyon complex on the Snake River, have permanently cut off adult salmon from their spawning grounds, essentially making them extinct above the dams.

Officials at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game are questioning how many resources should be devoted to saving fall chinook when so much of their habitat has already been lost. Like emergency room doctors assessing which patients have the best chance of survival, the department's triage wants more attention paid to spring chinook and steelhead that have much more of their habitat still intact. Concentrating so many resources on fall chinook, they say, is harming recreational fishing on steelhead as well as fishing in the reservoir.

Cal Groen, regional Fish and Game supervisor at Lewiston, said the effort to ensure dams and reservoirs don't unduly impact fishing has been lost in the battle to save fall chinook.

"I see a real lack of concern, attention or focus on returning adult fish and getting those fish in the fishery," said Groen.

For instance, Groen pointed out cold water releases from Dworshak generally end in late August, just before steelhead fishing opens on the Snake River. When the flows stop the fish leave, he said.

The department and tribe want some water saved to be released in September and October when it would benefit returning adults.

The tribe has invested heavily in recovering fall chinook and believes the reservoir would be drawn down sooner if not for the efforts to save the fish.

This spring the corps shifted some flood control operations to Grand Coulee Reservoir in Washington. More water was evacuated there so Dworshak would have a better chance of refilling.

"I think the risk you guys (the corps) took for flood control this year was great," said Dave Statler of the Nez Perce Tribe at Orofino.

That is something the state and tribe would like to see more of. The tribe is developing a plan that considers several issues such as recreation, flood control, resident fish, navigation and power production along with drawdowns outlined in the NMFS plan to recover salmon.

"I hope they can continue to do this kind of operation," said Statler.

Eric Barker
Drawdown Debate at Dworshak Continues
Lewiston Tribune, June 6, 2002

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