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Another dam mess

How would Bush’s energy bill affect Montana’s fisheries?

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This week Congress takes up the “Securing America’s Future Energy Act.” Though the Act’s signature issue, oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, has grabbed most of the headlines, there’s another component that could degrade three of Montana’s famous trout streams and numerous others throughout the west.

A little-discussed section of the Act requires the U.S. Department of the Interior to maximize the energy output of Bureau of Reclamation dams that produce more than 50 megawatts of electricity.

In Montana, three dams would be affected by this legislation: the Hungry Horse Dam on the South Fork of the Flathead River, Canyon Ferry Dam on the Missouri and the Yellowtail Dam on the Big Horn River.

The national conservation group, Trout Unlimited (TU), opposes the legislation because dams would be operated to provide power at peak use times, meaning that they would be turned off and on like air conditioners, either flooding downstream trout fisheries, or leaving trout stranded in small, shallow, warm pools.

Bureau of Reclamation dams are currently operated to balance a number of different objectives: irrigation, flood control, electricity production, and the maintenance of healthy fisheries. The “Securing America’s Future Energy Act” would change those objectives by placing a higher priority on the dams’ hydroelectric capabilities. “This bill tilts the table absolutely in favor of hydropower,” says Steve Malloch, TU’s chief counsel.

Prioritizing electricity generation means that water would be retained behind the dams when power usage is low. When demand peaks on hot summer afternoons or cold winter nights the stored water would flow through the turbines to produce more electricity.

Operating dams in that manner, says Malloch, “would be very bad for fish. If this energy bill passes, the great western trout streams will only have water when people in the cities turn on their air conditioners. Fish cannot live in rivers that are turned on and off with a thermostat.” Kirk Evenson, a Montana Trout Unlimited director, says the legislation is an example of the unfounded panic over the nation’s energy supply. If streams dwindle to a trickle during periods of low energy demand, Brown trout nests, called redds, would be left exposed. Nor can trout handle the periodic flooding that would occur.

Adjusting flows at Canyon Ferry Dam would also have an effect on downstream Holter and Hauser reservoirs as well. Since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) licenses those dams, neither would be directly affected by the pending legislation. There would be indirect effects, however, since FERC now maintains a consistent flow of water through both Holter and Hauser dams. If the Missouri River below Canyon Ferry Dam alternately floods and dwindles, the water storage at Holter and Hauser reservoirs will do the same. “If Canyon Ferry pulses, the other reservoirs have to pulse as well,” Evenson explains.

Old-timers, he adds, tell stories about fishing the Missouri back in the ’60s, before the FERC agreement was made to maintain a consistent water flow. Water would rise so quickly that anglers would be forced out of the river to their trucks and have to drive miles downstream to another spot. Fishermen might be going back to those days if the Securing America’s Future Energy Act is passed, he says.

“There’s big-time recreational fishing below all those dams,” says Malloch. A consistent, sustained flow is “absolutely the best for fishing and it’s why Canyon Ferry has fabulous, fabulous fishing.”

Montana’s fishing industry generates some $151 million annually, according to 1999 statistics kept by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The Missouri River generates the most number of fishing days of any river in the state; the Big Horn is second. The potential economic loss would be incalculable, says Wilson, especially considering the investment Montanans have made in real estate, lodging, fly shops, equipment, licenses and the like.

“All that needs to be looked at,” says Wilson. “From an economic point of view this is a serious, serious business for lots of people who are employed in Montana.”

Malloch has put the call out to fly fishing shops and TU members around the country, urging them to call Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-Mont.) to oppose the legislation, also known as HR4. Congress has already received between 400 and 500 letters and e-mails opposing the legislation, but the response from Montana has not been as strong as Malloch had hoped.

Malloch fears that the section of the bill proposing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will continue to command all the attention, especially from environmentalists around the country, and that the section calling for maximum electricity generation will be overlooked.

“If this bill passes, an awful lot of good western fishing will be sacrificed,” says Malloch.

Rehberg did not respond to requests by the Independent for an interview. Wilson fears that if Rehberg votes in favor of this bill, which he suspects the Republican congressman will, it will send a signal to Montanans that he’s willing to trade existing jobs for future jobs that have been neither identified nor defined. Malloch says that Rehberg’s staffers have indicated that Rehberg will rely on Montanans to raise a voice against the bill if the House approves it.

It’s not only the Missouri River that would suffer from passage of this legislation. Other rivers in the west which would be affected include the Green River in Utah, the Gunnison in Colorado, the Lower Sacramento in California, the Colorado below Glen Canyon in Arizona, the North Platte in Wyoming and the South Fork of the Snake River in Idaho.

Another component that has not been thoroughly considered is the effect this legislation would have on management plans to combat whirling disease, which afflicts trout, including some found in the Missouri River. Marshall Bloom, a research scientist at the Rocky Mountain Lab in Hamilton, has served on former Gov. Marc Racicot’s whirling disease study committee. He says maximum hydropower production will stress vulnerable native trout that are showing signs of recovery. “Studies show pretty conclusively that there’s a link between river flows and the susceptibility of young fish to whirling disease,” he says.

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