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Efforts to stabilize river flows gain support

| January 4, 2005 11:00 PM

By Roger Morris Western News Publisher

The state of Montana¹s efforts to stabilize summer flows from Libby Dam and keep lake elevation high at Koocanusa Reservoir are gaining considerable support.

Earlier this week, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council requested that the federal water managers in the Columbia River system implement the council¹s 2003 amendments relating to maintenance of reservoir levels behind both Libby and Hungry Horse dams.

The amendments call for reduced summer drafts from both reservoirs reducing the overall volume of water taken and prolonging the duration of flows into September. No more than 10 feet would be taken off the top of the reservoir compared to the call for the top 20 feet for endangered downstream salmon.

The council believes the proposed management would benefit both listed and non-listed resident fish in the reservoirs and in the Kootenai and Flathead rivers below the reservoirs without measurable impact on salmon farther downstream in the Columbia River.

Montana representatives have been arguing for years that the combined water drafted from Koocanusa and Hungry Horse reservoirs is not measurable in the Columbia and therefore not discernible to endangered salmon.

The state asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries regional administrator to test such operations last summer. But Bob Lohm said the proposal lacked a testing procedure to determine its impacts on downstream salmon. The biological opinion for the recovery of the salmon calls for a drawdown of 20 feet from Koocanusa to help push juvenile salmon out to sea.

Lohm did suggest a symposium be held to determine if such testing was possible. Based on information from that symposium, held in November, an Independent Scientific Advisory Board said the council¹s proposal is reasonable and that any affects on downstream salmon are likely to be too small to measure accurately because of the enormous flows in the Columbia River.

The power planning council asked the federal agencies to prepare a change in management operations for the summer of 2005 and fund the necessary testing.

Local fishermen and state biologists have expressed concerns for years that the summer salmon flows, following closely increased flows for endangered white sturgeon, were unnatural for the Kootenai River posing a threat to resident trout and aquatic insects.

The scientific advisory board, during the symposium in November, came away with more questions than answers on whether the high flows in the Columbia River benefited downstream fish.

The power council¹s proposal is seeking lower, steady flows in the Kootenai River which is attractive for survival of fish in the river below Libby Dam, say local fishermen and state biologists.