Dworshak Water is Staying Put
by Eric Barker
Idaho Power Co. may release more water from Brownlee Reservoir
LAPWAI -- The fate of water in Dworshak Reservoir remains in limbo today after the Columbia River Indian Tribes and the state of Idaho failed to persuade Oregon, Washington and the federal government to save some water for late summer.
But a possible increase in flows from Brownlee Reservoir, operated by Idaho Power Co., may help settle the heated dispute.
Idaho, the Nez Perce Tribe and the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission clashed with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Oregon and Washington at a Technical Management Team meeting in Lapwai Thursday. The team meets weekly to discuss migration conditions for Snake River salmon.
The downriver states and the federal fish agencies want to immediately increase Dworshak discharge to 10,000 cubic feet per second in order to begin cooling the lower Snake River and flush juvenile fall chinook to the ocean.
Idaho and the tribes want some of the water saved to benefit late migrating smolts and returning adults in September. To do that they want discharge at Dworshak to hold steady at 6,500 cubic feet per second for another week. Both groups agree discharge should ramp up to 14,000 cubic feet per second the following week.
Paul Wagner of the National Marine Fisheries Service said the water should be used in July and August when most of the smolts are in the river. According to historical data, when temperatures at Lower Granite Dam rise above 68 degrees and flows drop below 40,000 cfs, survival of smolts plunge. Water has hovered around 68 degrees there for the past week and flows are down to 36,000 cfs.
"The data suggests temperatures will only get worse and flows will stay poor," said Wagner.
But Idaho and the tribes argued that under the National Marine Fisheries Service and the downriver states' plan, Dworshak water will run out at the end of August when 40 percent of juvenile fall chinook are still in the river. They maintain that cool regional temperatures forecast for the next week opens the door to saving some water for later.
"Mother Nature is throwing us a curve ball and I think I want to take a swing at it," said Steve Pettit of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston.
Greg Haller of the Nez Perce Tribe's water resource department agreed, but said Idaho Power should increase its flows to help the situation.
"Those guys get off with nothing every year," he said. "No burden is placed on them at all. I don't think you can make a justification for not going after that water."
Late Thursday afternoon a representative of Idaho Power surprised the parties when he said the company would likely increase outflows from Brownlee Reservoir for one week. That would buy some time before Dworshak water would be required to help the young fish. However, Wagner was not willing to make a straight trade of Brownlee water for Dworshak water although he said the Brownlee water would be welcome.
Wagner's refusal to budge angered Idaho and the tribes.
"Your response is we'll take (the Brownlee water) too, We'll have our cake and a little ice cream on top and we'll eat it all," said Ed Schriever of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston.
Wagner shot back that low snow packs make it difficult to be flexible.
"This year we are dealing with crumbs and an empty can," he said.
The higher flows from Brownlee would not increase the 427,000 acre feet of water that Idaho has agreed to deliver from the southern half of the state to benefit salmon. Instead it would just deliver the water quicker and while it's still cool enough to benefit fish.
It has been the company's policy to limit drawdowns at the reservoir to one foot per day in order to reduce recreational impacts. But that argument met with little sympathy from the tribe and Idaho, which are sore over recreational effects inflicted on Dworshak for the last several years. The reservoir is lowered 80 feet each summer to benefit fall chinook.
The Technical Management Team, which normally meets in Portland, took some time to hear from Orofino residents who have shouldered the burden of Dworshak drawdowns.
"It has literally cost our community millions of dollars," said Keith Hanson of the Orofino Chamber of Commerce.
After failing to reach consensus on the issue, Idaho elevated the debate to the Implementation Team, a group of policy representatives from the federal agencies and the states. The group will meet at 10 a.m. today to set Dworshak flows.
There was some talk of taking the reservoir down 100 feet this year in order to benefit the late migrating smolts and returning adults. Wagner said doing so would give salmon managers some much needed data on the effectiveness of increasing late summer flows for adults.
The state and tribe said the proposal would not be acceptable.
"That plan is not going anywhere," said Haller.
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