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Guides worried about economic hit

| June 14, 2006 12:00 AM

Kootenai River guides are facing a crippling blow to the blue ribbon fishery as a major spill from Libby Dam continues.

Tim Linehan of Linehan Outfitting said he was in a state of disbelief, almost surreal, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began spilling water from the reservoir last week. It is the second major spill in four years.

"In a matter of speaking we're still recovering from 2002," the quiet spoken river guide from the Yaak said.

Linehan said the guides lost one-third of the season in 2002 due to the length of the spill and damage it did to the fishery.

When water drops down the spillway and hits the river, it creates nitrogen gas bubbles that damage and frequently kill fish. It's against state and federal law for the gas levels to exceed 110 percent, which happens at Libby Dam with spills 2,000 cfs and over. The Corps has been spilling 14,000 cfs since Friday to make room in the reservoir for anticipated runoff from rainy weather in the upper drainage in Canada.

Fishing only started to recover last summer, Linehan said.

"A lot of clients lost interest in the Kootenai River because 10-inch rainbows only go so far," the guide said. The 14- to 21-inch fish the Kootenai is known for disappeared after the 2002 spill and were making a come back, Linehan said.

"After the last spill, the creel survey showed those slot fish were gone," he said.

He believes VarQ, the operating regime for Libby Dam needs to be "tweaked" so that there is plenty of space in the reservoir for unexpected runoff early in the summer. Federal water managers for the Columbia River System developed VarQ to insure that water was available in the reservoir for endangered white sturgeon and salmon downstream.

Dave Blackburn, the Kootenai Angler, has been working the river for more than 25 years. Lately he has been in a foul mood as he searches the river looking for dead trout and bull trout, also an endangered species.

"We can put a 500-pound smart bomb, with pinpoint accuracy, and take out a guy in his home but the Corps can't predict snowpack and runoff levels in Canada," Blackburn said. "It's just a mismanagement of a resource."

Blackburn said he is closing his downtown fishing shop and moving it to a small corner of his Big Bend restaurant upriver.

"I've got to cut my losses on this deal," he said. "We already are taking cancellation calls."

He called the spill unbelievable and wondered why the Corps couldn't leave room in the reservoir for such unexpected weather calamities.