Libby Dam releases are being ramped up to prepare for running the Kootenai River at low flows this fall to allow for the start of a long-planned white sturgeon habitat restoration project.
The Kootenai Tribes of Idaho requested an operations change this week before a multi-agency panel that manages federal hydro operations in the Northwest.
The Technical Management Team approved, allowing for higher releases now that will accommodate low flows in September.
That will allow for the start of the Kootenai River Habitat Restoration Project that has been planned for the last decade by the tribes along with partner agencies and entities.
“We’re really excited to get this first project implemented,” said Sue Ireland, director of the tribes’ fish and wildlife program.
“Another thing about this project that we think is important is that it’s a habitat fix rather than flow only, which has kind of been the only approach in the past,” Ireland said, referring to past attempts to optimize spawning conditions through flow and temperature changes from Libby Dam.
The project is described as a large-scale ecosystem restoration project that will be implemented over a period of 10 to 15 years on a 55-mile stretch river that mostly extends upstream from Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
Phase one of the project will be carried out this fall with a budget of $2.2 million mostly provided by the Bonneville Power Administration’s fish and wildlife program for mitigating impacts caused by federal dams.
One of the main goals is to restore spawning habitat for white sturgeon, an endangered species that has not had any detectable recruitment of young wild sturgeon for decades, Ireland said.
This fall’s work is intended to stabilize eroding banks, trap sediment and promote flood-plain development, increase riparian vegetation and increase channel margin and side-channel complexity.
The bank restoration work is important, Ireland said, because there has been severe bank erosion within the project area, a significant source of riverbed sedimentation that has diminished survival conditions for sturgeon emerging from their eggs.
Ireland said low flows on the river will be necessary to allow for in-channel equipment work that is expected to take about two months, while other work will carry on into November.
“We’re going to need to de-water a portion of the main and by-channels,” Ireland said. “We will need to isolate that work area by building a small dam so we can do the channel work.”
Because the survival of young wild sturgeon is believed to be nearly nonexistent, the only thing preventing the species from going extinct is the Kootenai Tribes of Idaho hatchery program, which produces sturgeon that are planted in the river.
Flows from Libby Dam were increased from 14,000 cubic feet per second to 16,000 cfs this week. Outflows will be decreased and maintained at low flows in September.