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Dworshak Could Stay Fuller, Longer

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, May 19, 2004

Details of water claims settlement must still be worked out

Dworshak Reservoir could remain full for a longer period of time each summer because of the proposed settlement to the Nez Perce Tribe's water rights claims in the Snake River.

But several complicated details still have to be worked out.

As part of the proposed water rights settlement, the tribe would sign a memorandum of agreement with the state of Idaho and the federal government governing the release of water from the reservoir. Specifically, the agreement would deal with about 200,000 acre feet of flow augmentation from Dworshak Reservoir the tribe and state would like to have released in September instead of August.

Each year, beginning in early July, the reservoir is lowered about 80 feet (1.2 million acre feet) as water is released to help push juvenile fall chinook to the ocean and to help cool the lower Snake River. The releases are called for as part of the federal government's plan to recover fall chinook.

But the releases have a negative impact on recreation at the reservoir and also slow the growth of juvenile fall chinook in the lower Clearwater River.

The tribe and state oppose the plan because of that and have joined forces in recent years to convince officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries to begin the releases later in July, which would extend reservoir recreation and save about 200,000 acre feet of water for release in September.

Greg Haller of the tribe's water resources department said Tuesday the tribe would like to convince the federal government to continue to release the water later in the summer.

"We want to see (Dworshak Reservoir) fuller longer so we have the flexibility in September," said Haller.

However several details of the proposed settlement of the tribes water claims would have to be finalized to keep the reservoir full for a longer period of time.

One of the main points of the water rights settlement trades the tribes' claims to water in the Snake River for the state and federal government authorizing the annual release of up to 487,000 acre feet of water from the upper Snake River.

Under an envisioned water management plan, the upper Snake River water would be released in early July when it is still cool. The water would help juvenile fall chinook in Hells Canyon begin their journey to the ocean.

Once that water was used the Dworshak flows could begin, presumably in late July or early August. If that were to happen the reservoir would stay full for longer during the heart of the summer recreation period.

It would also keep the cold Dworshak water out of the lower Clearwater River in July when juvenile fall chinook there are still growing and preparing to begin their journey toward the ocean.

But the 487,000 acre feet of water from the upper Snake River has to pass through Idaho Power Co. dams in Hells Canyon and the company was not a party to the proposed settlement.

"It's a matter of getting that water in a timely fashion when the fish need it," said Haller. "How Idaho Power has sent the water through in the past has not benefited the fish because the water quality is such that it's harmful. It's too warm."

Idaho Power is in the process of having its dams relicensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. John Prescott, vice president for power generation at Boise, said the company has chosen to have discussions about flow augmentation and endangered fish take place in the context of relicensing, which is still several years from complete.

He did say the company would consider moving the water if a deal can be worked out.

"We would be willing to work with the federal government as long as our customers were fairly compensated for that, because it's our customers that bear that risk," he said.

Coming up with a compensation package could be difficult and expensive. Prescott said the danger from Idaho Power's perspective is once the water is released, it is gone and worthless.

The tribe and federal government would like the water released early in the summer. But the demand for power rises as summer temperatures rise in August and office and home air conditioners switch on. If power prices were to jump after the water is released, the company would not have the option of using the water when it is most profitable.

"We need to make sure we are not putting the system at risk to compensate for a federal problem, which is not the responsibility of our company or our customers," said Prescott.

If an agreement with Idaho Power were not worked out and the company did not pass water through its dams until August, Dworshak releases would likely begin in early July.

Drought years could throw off the plan. The state has agreed to provide the Snake River water on a willing seller, willing buyer basis. During drought years, farmers might not be willing to sell their water and that too could cause an early start to Dworshak releases.

Because of the uncertainty, state Rep. Chuck Cuddy of Orofino said there is nothing concrete in the proposed settlement to the tribe's claims that will benefit people in Clearwater County.

"There was basically nothing in that agreement I saw that would give us relief for Dworshak," he said.

Cuddy did say if everything falls into place the settlement and proposed Dworshak memorandum of agreement could help Orofino and Clearwater County. However he said the deal does more to help southern Idaho and the tribe.

Eric Barker
Dworshak Could Stay Fuller, Longer
Lewiston Tribune, May 19, 2004

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