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Appraisal Says Clearwater River, Not Tributaries, Best Option For Lewiston Area Irrigators, Steelhea
Posted on Friday, September 16, 2011 (PST)

A proposal to pump water from central Idaho’s Clearwater River rather than from a set of its tributaries is the best choice for irrigators and imperiled steelhead, according to a draft “appraisal study” prepared for Lower Clearwater Exchange Project stakeholders.


Those stakeholders include the Lewiston Orchards Irrigation District, Nez Perce Tribe, Lewiston Chamber of Commerce, City of Lewiston, and Nez Perce County. They hope to create a reliable water supply for the district that does not drain those tributary streams, and would thus leave a precious cool water refuge for wild steelhead that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.


The district’s service area covers about 4,000 acres on a plateau overlooking the northern portion of the city of Lewiston, Idaho. To feed the system, the district taps the Lapwai-Sweetwater drainage.


“At this level of analysis, the Clearwater River appears to provide a reliable surface water source for LOID,” the report says. “As thoroughly vetted in Chapter 4, the alternative warrants further consideration and study within a feasibility analysis.”


“It should be noted that the Clearwater River Action Alternatives were the most favored of the alternatives recommend for feasibility study by the key stakeholder group,” says the report.


The Bureau of Reclamation will now prepare a final report and recommendations based on the draft study and input received from the public. Comments on the draft may be sent to the Lewiston Orchards Irrigation District until Nov. 18.


The draft study was completed J-U-B Engineers, Inc., of Lewiston. Reclamation representatives participated in the study alongside LCEP partners in an advisory capacity, and the study was funded and authorized under Reclamation's Rural Water Supply Program.


The Lewiston Orchards Project was originally constructed by private interests, beginning in 1906. Most of the project features have been rehabilitated or rebuilt by Reclamation. The project facilities include four diversion structures (Webb Creek, Sweetwater, West Fork, and Captain John) feeder canals, three small storage reservoirs (Soldiers Meadow, Reservoir A, and Lake Waha) a domestic water system including a water filtration plant which is no longer in use, and a system for distribution of irrigation water.


In 2010, Reclamation's Rural Water Supply Program provided $228,784 to prepare the draft study. LCEP stakeholders intend to apply for continued assistance to complete a feasibility study and environmental documentation necessary to select a preferred alternative, and design and construct a water supply to replace the existing LOID system, according to the Bureau.


The LCEP is a regional, collaborative partnership; formalized in 2009, aimed at permanently resolving three recurring federal-interest problems in the lower Clearwater basin: (1) adverse impacts on ESA-listed steelhead and designated critical habitat resulting from Reclamation's existing LOID project location within the lower Lapwai/Sweetwater Creek watershed; (2) inadequate water quantity, quality and reliability provided to LOID under the existing project; and (3) adverse impacts on the Nez Perce Tribe and its people, including impacts to natural resources and cultural/religious water uses, resulting from the predominant location of the existing project on the Nez Perce Reservation.


The LCEP concept is at its core a water exchange: the development of a high-efficiency piping system from a mainstem water source, conceived to date by the LCEP as the lower Clearwater River, and the simultaneous protection of upstream flows in the lower Lapwai/Sweetwater Creek tributary system.


The LCEP says that implementing that plan would resolve all three problems described above by terminating unreliable, inefficient water diversions from tributary streams, ending ESA impacts in the Sweetwater area of critical habitat, and ending impacts to the Nez Perce Reservation and Nez Perce people resulting from the existing canal system and water diversions.


The exchange would result in direct increased flows for steelhead and multiple fish species. It would also provide fish passage above the existing Sweetwater Dam to historic, high-quality steelhead habitat that is fed by the largest year-round coolwater spring in the lower Clearwater subbasin, Sweetwater Springs.


This aspect of the project is additionally significant, considering the impacts of climate change, the stakeholders say. Forty-three miles of stream habitat presently impaired or blocked by the existing LOID system would be restored. The total watershed acreage presently drained by Reclamation's existing LOID project is 61,325 acres.


The Bureau of Reclamation’s report, due in about 90 days, could recommend a feasibility study of at least one the appraised alternatives. The study's alternatives include replacement water sources where water is presently available for appropriation: the lower Clearwater River, the lower Snake River and Lewiston-area groundwater sources.


"The tribe, Reclamation, and NOAA Fisheries agreed to set aside the third round of litigation in five years based on an agreement that provides interim flows in Webb and Sweetwater creeks and focuses our energy on the Lower Clearwater Exchange Project," McCoy Oatman, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe's Natural Resources Subcommittee, said of a long-running lawsuit over the water withdrawals.


The tribe in February agreed to stay its lawsuit against the irrigation for three years while the parties seek and alternative water source.


"The appraisal study illustrates that there is a way to permanently solve ESA, tribal-trust, and LOID water quantity, quality, and reliability issues,” Oatman said. “The tribe and our LCEP partners are one step closer to making this solution a reality. Our efforts to find a win-win result have received widespread political support at the state and federal level."


The LCEP partners say they have engaged a broad range of entities for public support and potential funding. The LCEP has received initial funding to date from Reclamation and NOAA Fisheries; and public support from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, the University of ldaho's Waters of the West Program, Trout Unlimited, Clearwater Power Company, Avista Power, and the Clearwater Basin Collaborative.


The LCEP effort has also received public support from Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, the Idaho congressional delegation, and all Idaho state legislators in the project area.


A review copy of the draft Study is available in LOID's office and online at


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