Dworshak, Roosevelt, Hungry Horse, Koocanusa, American Falls, Brownlee, Cascade.
The Columbia River Basin’s upstream reservoirs are being tapped - sometimes nearly drained - to help endangered salmon reach the ocean.
Even natural lakes such as Pend Oreille and Coeur d’Alene are being considered as sources of water for “salmon flush.”
Reservoir fish populations are suffering as a result. Boating is impossible or unattractive, so tourism is taking a hit. Hydropower profits are down. Irrigators are nervous.
But there is another way to provide a faster current for the salmon. Instead of pouring more water from the upstream reservoirs, water can be drained from the downstream reservoirs. That would narrow the channel where the fish are migrating.
So, why aren’t more people supporting lower Snake River drawdowns? The answer boils down to this: confusion, skepticism and cost.
Some people aren’t aware of the tradeoff between downriver drawdowns and releasing water from behind upstream dams.
“It’s so incredibly complex that most people don’t understand the potential impacts and the political maneuvering,” says Sherl Chapman, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association.
But some are keenly aware of the arguments supporting drawdowns and/or upstream releases, and don’t believe either tactic will save wild Snake River salmon and steelhead.
Others think the cost of either tactic is too high.
“There are people who would just as soon see the fish go away,” says Steve Huffaker, Idaho’s state fisheries chief. “They say, ‘We can’t fish for them. They’re dinosaurs. Let the dinosaurs die out, and we’ll get on with it.”’
Sherl Chapman represents irrigators, most of whom grow potatoes and grain in southern Idaho. Their clout is second only to hydropower interests among industries affected by salmon recovery.
The farm lobbyist knows the simple argument at the core of the complex scientific and economic issue: Migrating fish need a real river to swim in. Not a series of slackwater reservoirs.
“Common sense would lead you to that conclusion, that speed helps salmon downstream,” says Chapman.
But he supports neither drawdowns nor increased use of upstream water. He cites a study that indicates most young salmon survive their trip through Lower Granite Reservoir, the first of eight reservoirs they hit in the lower Snake and Columbia.
He knows the federal study is unpublished and incomplete, and that Idaho’s state biologists question its methods. “But if new data confirms it, maybe neither augmentation or drawdowns will help.”
Lower Snake drawdowns would hurt Lewiston and other inland ports.
“We want to protect Idaho’s whole economy,” says Chapman, explaining why many Upper Snake River irrigators refuse to endorse drawdowns even though it would take pressure off them.
Protection of the farm economy was one reason Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus proposed drawdowns four years ago. He also believed they would result in more adult salmon returning to spawn in Central Idaho.
Both drawdowns and upstream releases are part of the salmon recovery strategy approved by the Northwest Power Planning Council in December.
For now, the strategy depends heavily on upstream releases to get fish moving. But that would change over the next seven years, as drawdowns are phased in at four reservoirs on the lower Snake and one on the Columbia.
The two-pronged strategy might be reflected in a recovery plan for endangered Snake River salmon, being written by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Among those who contend neither drawdowns nor increased flows will save the fish are some powerful Idaho Republicans.
Sen. Larry Craig and Gov.-elect Phil Batt are especially critical of the council’s request for a three-fold increase in water released from the Upper Snake River.
Even if the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation keeps its promise only to buy irrigation water from willing sellers - and not confiscate it for fish flows - the strategy could still hurt the economy, says Batt.
Batt, who takes over this week from Andrus, predicts that the equivalent of all Canyon County farmland would be taken out of production if the power council gets its way. “Entire towns will cease to exist because of the loss of tax and economic base.”
Fishing communities throughout the Columbia River Basin are suffering already. John Volkman, power council attorney, doesn’t see the same happening to farmers.
“If people have the right incentive to use water efficiently and carefully and find ways to leave some in the river, we can do this without hurting anyone,” Volkman says.
So far, the government has found few farmers willing to sell water. But it may not make much difference. In drought years, there’s not enough water to significantly help the salmon, anyway.
“Last year, the National Marine Fisheries Service said they needed 4.5 million acre feet (from all upstream sources) for August. They got 2.7 million,” says Angus Duncan, power council chairman. “Even in getting that, they hit Dworshak reservoir so hard there’s big doubt that it will refill this year.”
Continued drought could nudge the power council to speed up the drawdown portion of its strategy.
Another argument in favor of drawdowns: Upstream water releases cost a lot more in lost hydropower production.
Relying primarily on upstream releases would cost $500 million to $600 million a year, says Duncan. The council estimates that its strategy including phased-in drawdowns will cost $177 million annually.
“Stored water that you can use for power as you need it is pretty valuable,” says Duncan, a council member from Oregon. “The more of that you shift to fish, the more it costs.”
Of course, the power council and the Marine Fisheries Service could become convinced that speeding up the water is not crucial to recovering wild salmon.
Or they could decide that making the river a river again wouldn’t undo the harm done by poor ocean conditions, over harvest and degraded spawning habitat.
Volkman, the power council attorney, thinks costs must be distributed upriver, downriver - all around the region.
“This whole salmon recovery effort is something that works only if fishermen, farmers and power companies and untold legions of people really want to make it work.
“We’re sort of assuming that people care about the resource. We could be wrong.”
MEMO: See also sidebar which appeared with this story under headline “A salmon glossary”