Idaho Power River Restoration
by Olivia Weitz
MELBA -- Idaho Power is taking steps to improve water quality and habitat in Snake River sections upstream from the complex of dams it operates in Hells Canyon.
Utility officials point to a recent project that involved deepening a stretch of river and planting more than 18,000 trees on Bayha and Wright islands near Walter's Ferry to provide shade to a section that has a tendency to heat up during the summer, causing algae overgrowth that threatens fish.
This shallow section of the river next to Bayha island was narrowed and deepened, thanks to crews that dredged up rocks from the river bottom.
"This is a pilot project to assess what the impact is of a project like this is in hopes that we can demonstrate that this is an effective way to improve the water quality in the river," said Idaho Power spokesman Brad Bowlin.
The $3 million project, which was completed late last month, began in July in a partnership with The Freshwater Trust, a Portland-based firm with river-restoration experience.
Bowlin says the Bayha Island project will help demonstrate the utility's commitment to improving water quality in the river system. But projects like these are also significant because they are a key requirement in the process of getting a federal license to operate dams in the Hells Canyon Complex. Idaho Power operates three hydroelectric dams in that complex, which accounts for about 70 percent of its total hydroelectric power generation.
When the company was first given a license to operate those dams in the late 1950s, the term was for 50 years, according to Bowlin. The license expired in 2005. Since then, the company has been operating on a year-to-year license.
Getting all of the newly added requirements for a longer license, including fish monitoring and water quality, has taken time, Bowlin said.
The company has been working to meet these requirements, even before the license expired Bowlin said. The hope is that the Bayha Island project and a larger stewardship program on the Snake River will help in being granted the longer-term license.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has received the company's application for a new license, but it is still waiting for water quality certifications from Oregon and Idaho, according to Celeste Miller, a media contact with FERC.
DREDGING A SHALLOW SECTION OF THE RIVER
There are many sections of the Middle Snake River that are shallow, but the water flowing near Bayha Island was especially skinny -- just 2 feet deep in some places -- says Idaho Power Biologist Stacey Baczkowski. In the summer months, the sun can really heat up flows in the shallow sections, she said.
Warmer water can lead to more algae growth, which reduces oxygen levels so important for fish survival, Baczkowski told the Press-Tribune.
White sturgeon, the largest freshwater fish in North America, frequent this section of river, which is part of the Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge. In the years after construction of the dams, population of sturgeon declined. The fabled fish, which have been recorded as nearly 20 feet in length and up to 1,800 pounds, have been designated as catch and release only since 1970.
The section also is prime habitat for a species of endangered snails, the Snake River physa, which are listed as critically imperiled.
After the channel was dredged to make it deeper, crews added in gravel sourced from a rancher who owns property near the riverbank.
"What you want is gravel without a lot of sediment. That provides the habitat for snails, aquatic life, invertebrates, fish eggs," Baczkowski said.
PLANTING VEGETATION AND LOOKING UPSTREAM
Along the river, the islands and shoreline provide habitat for deer, ducks and other wildlife. Deer will soon be able to munch on extra grass planted on Bayha and Wright islands, says Freshwater Trust Habitat Restoration Project Manager Monique Leslie.
Besides grass, crews planted more than 18,000 trees on the two islands, which will provide shade for the river and benefits downstream.
"Not only will (plants) protect the bank as this island matures, but they'll produce seed that will travel to other areas as well," Leslie said. "The idea is that it will be a source for other plants downstream."
On other parts of the Snake River, closer to Hells Canyon, Bowlin said Idaho Power has been working with landowners to plant more trees that can one day provide more shade to the river.
In addition, the company has identified 55 possible in-stream river improvement projects on stretches between Marsing and Homedale, according to Baczkowksi.
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