The Northwest Power and Conservation Council on Wednesday recommended more than $21 million in spending over the next four years to protect fish habitat, improve flows and reconnect tributary streams to eastern Idaho's Lemhi River.
The goal is to benefit all life stages of Snake River spring/summer chinook and Snake River steelhead, two fish stocks that are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The project will benefit resident cutthroat, redband and bull trout as well.
The Lemhi watershed encompasses more than 803,000 acres and includes some of the most important spawning and rearing habitat within the Upper Salmon River watershed. The Lemhi flows into the Salmon River, which feeds into the Snake and then the Columbia River. The project, proposed for funding by Idaho's Office of Species Conservation, intends to maintain the current biological integrity of more than 12,000 acres of riparian and aquatic habitat while improving the quality of that habitat for all salmonid species.
The planned improvements address salmon survival limitations noted by NOAA Fisheries Service in its 2008 Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion, which prescribes measures needed to improve the lot of listed salmon and steelhead.
"This is an important project to us," said Bill Booth, one of two Idaho representatives on the Council. He noted that the state had been working since 1992 -- the year the salmon and steelhead stocks were listed -- on Lemhi watershed habitat improvement projects.
"It's a big deal," Booth said of the large step forward represented by the latest project. It aims to protect habitat through conservation easement and fee simple acquisitions, boost flows in the Lemhi and tributaries by a total of 40 cubic feet per second and reconnect 45 miles of tributary habitat to the Lemhi where that link had been broken largely because of water withdrawals for irrigation.
The project is called for in a May 2008 Columbia Basin Fish Accord memorandum of agreement signed by the state and Federal Columbia River Power System action agencies. Those agencies include the Bonneville Power Administration, which funds the Council's Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program as mitigation for hydro system impacts on fish and wildlife. BPA markets power generated in the FCRPS and makes the final decisions regarding funding of fish and wildlife mitigation projects..
The project, as well as other accord projects, are channeled through the NPCC program to take advantage of its Independent Scientific Review Panel. The ISRP reviewed the Lemhi proposal for scientific merit and in an Aug. 30 report gave it a thumbs up.
A total of $21.6 million is earmarked for the project from now through fiscal year 2013.
The conservation easements and purchases will result in a combination of donated water transactions, water leases, and irrigation infrastructure/efficiency changes to help improve in-stream flows.
They will also provide strong legal protection and conservation outcomes, such as grazing restrictions or commitments to restore degraded river habitat and non-functioning tributary habitat. The acquisitions will address limiting factors identified in the FCRPS BiOp planning process which include: stream flow; migration barriers; entrainment; riparian condition, sediment and temperature.
"Idaho and its partners have selected areas in the Lemhi watershed having the highest densities of active chinook salmon spawning, and have prioritized tributaries having the highest intrinsic potential to support spawning and rearing to maximize the biological benefits for anadromous fish," according to the project narrative.
"The acquisitions and subsequent habitat actions that target low stream flows, high stream temperatures, fish passage barriers, degraded riparian reaches, and associated sedimentation are expected to improve the productivity of Lemhi River Chinook salmon and steelhead. Specifically, these actions are projected by NOAA to increase egg to smolt survival by 16 percent for chinook and 5 percent for steelhead."
Two centuries of human development served to degrade the watershed's fish habitat, according to the narrative.
"Irrigation water diversion, past timber harvest and mining activities, land development with associated clear cutting of riparian vegetation, road development, and livestock grazing have all reduced flow and degraded stream habitat in the Lemhi River, and functionally disconnected tributaries from the mainstem," the narrative says. "Dewatering occurs in segments in the lower reaches of most tributaries, effectively blocking migration of adult and juvenile salmonids.
"Dewatering of the lower Lemhi River can also occur during low water years, impeding fish migration between the Lemhi River watershed and the Salmon River. In addition to impeding fish migration and limiting access to important habitat, reduced flow resulting from water withdrawals degrades the quality of instream habitat, ultimately negatively affecting fish production, growth, and survival."
Booth called the ongoing restoration "a partnership" with landowners and others in the watershed aimed at boosting fish fortunes while maintaining existing land uses.
"The ranchers are gong to be able to continue doing what they are doing," Booth said.