Gov. Phil Batt said Thursday that he wants to use the heavy runoff expected this spring to rapidly advance the Northwest’s understanding of key issues involved in saving salmon and steelhead runs.
His anadromous fish management recommendations for 1997 include taking advantage of higher-than-usual stream-flows to leave more migrating juvenile fish in the Snake and Columbia rivers rather than barging them around dams.
“I think this is the year to determine that, to more accurately judge at optimum conditions whether the river is better for the fish than to barge them,” Batt said.
The governor’s recommendations were immediately endorsed by all four members of the state’s congressional delegation and such advocacy groups as Idaho Steelhead and Salmon Unlimited and Idaho Rivers United.
Snake River sockeye and two runs of chinook salmon are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Steelhead also are being considered for listing, and many fish advocates contend federal recovery efforts so far have relied too heavily on barging.
“This year should provide a unique experiment for insight into salmon and steelhead migration success during a high water event,” state officials said in the plan being submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“Idaho believes we should act on this opportunity by allowing smolts to take advantage of this year’s runoff, while also ensuring some of the smolts are transported in barges consistent with our interim ‘spread-the-risk’ strategy.”
The proposal includes a sliding scale based on the weekly mean flow of water at Lower Granite Dam, on the Snake River in Eastern Washington, to determine what percentage of fish should be barged and left in the river.
When the flow is 100,000 cubic feet per second or greater, two-thirds of the smolts would be left in the river and one-third would be barged, according to the recommendation. The ratio would be 50-50 when the flow falls as low as 85,000 cfs.
“Idaho does not anticipate that mean weekly flows at Lower Granite Dam will drop below 100 kcfs during the 1997 spring migration period and is committed to doing everything possible to avoid this occurrence,” including use of available storage water from Brownlee Reservoir on the Snake River and Dworshak Reservoir on the North Fork of the Clearwater River.
But the strategy calls “unrealistic and unacceptable” using reservoir water from the Clearwater Basin or the Snake River Basin above Hells Canyon “to try to reverse the fundamental effects that the four federal dams on the lower Snake River have had on the Snake River ecosystem.”
Instead, it supports using whatever limited upstream water is available each year to benefit smolts migrating in the spring, from April 15 to June 1 - including spring-summer chinook, steelhead and sockeye.
The fisheries service’s current emphasis is on providing water to help the summer-migrating fall chinook. However, according to the state proposal, “Idaho’s springtime migrants are more imperiled than summer migrants and have more ecological, recreational and financial significance.”
In addition, the recommendation said how much water Idaho makes available to aid smolt migration should be based on each year’s snowpack, reservoir levels, fish and flood-control needs and how many willing sellers federal water managers can find.