Yesterday I had a productive meeting with the US Fish & Wildlife Service who wanted to discuss some of my posts. They suggested we meet again soon to explore additional topics in more detail, but they did want to go into my recent Crooked River post.
Here are my concerns from the previous post in summary and my paraphrasing of USFWS’s response:
- There is no scientific justification for the 50 cfs average minimum target during the winter and it is unclear what is meant by “average”.
It appeared to me that USFWS’s primary goal is to address the very low flows in dry years during non-irrigation season. In wet years there should be no issue maintaining good flows in the winter and 50 cfs is certainly an improvement from the current management regime for dry years. USFWS confirmed this and stated that 50 cfs was arrived at after consultation with other agencies and reflects their professional opinion for minimum survivability for listed species (steelhead, salmon, and potentially bull trout).
This is an important point. The Habitat Conservation Plan is not intended to create good habitat at all times. In fact, the point of the HCP is to create conditions that will allow for some loss of threatened species (“incidental take”) while not imperiling overall survival and allowing for eventual recovery.
I’m conflicted on this. While the HCP process allows for incidental take, is 50 cfs the best that can be done? What level of incidental take will it entail? While it might be enough to allow for survival, what conservation measures could be implemented that would further increase flows in dry years? The proposed HCP for the upper Deschutes increases flow targets over time as conservation measures are implemented in wet and dry years. Why not the same for the Crooked River, thereby reducing the amount of loss?
Regarding my concerns about an “average” of 50 cfs, versus a minimum, that language is intended to allow for minor fluctuations that occur during the operation of the dam. The flows should be in a narrow range around 50 cfs. That is a welcome clarification.
- There is no provision for reducing the incidence of gas bubble disease.
USFWS explained that there are multiple mandates for releases from Bowman Dam into the Crooked River. Along with storage for irrigation and fish water, the dam is also managed for flood control. Those high water releases are the source of gas bubble disease and are outside the purview of the HCP.
That’s an interesting legal point. Of course, releasing water earlier in high water years would both mitigate flood risk while minimizing spills and the resulting incidence of gas bubble disease.
- There is no mention of water quality.
USFWS acknowledged this and stated that water quality from agricultural runoff (“return flows”) would be included in the Environmental Impact Statement that will be complete by the end of 2018.
- It does not address the low flow, high temperature problem that exists below the Wild & Scenic section during irrigation season.
They acknowledged that there are going to be sections that are too warm in the summer for listed species. In short, they believe that there is only so much water and some sections of the river will continue to have poor habitat. This will lead to some “incidental take” which is allowed.
My reaction to this discussion is that USFWS is operating under the constraints of the HCP process and there will be trade-offs. There is certainly going to be improvement in some parts of the river during the winter in dry years. That being said, as an angler it remains frustrating that the river and the fish & wildlife that depend on it will remain disadvantaged. I look forward to seeing how water quality is addressed in the EIS due at the end of this year and hope that measures for increasing flows over time will be considered.
There is also the issue of protecting flows from withdrawals by secondary water rights holders downstream from the irrigation district’s points of diversion. That’s a discussion for another post in the future.
UPDATE 1/27/18: USFWS had a few more comments on this post. They want to emphasize that the Habitat Conservation Plan remains in a draft state and that they will be working with other agencies to improve flows. I appreciate that, but the draft stage is precisely the time for the public to be voicing concern. They also encourage the public to learn more about the HCP process at: https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/hcp.pdf