Archives


Watersheds to Watch: WRIA 33 — Lower Snake River

by Nick Manning

Water Resource Inventory Area (WRIA) 33 encompasses the Lower Snake Watershed, including a large portion of the Snake River and its numerous tributary creeks and streams. Originating in the mountains of Idaho and Wyoming, the Snake River runs through southeast Washington, meeting the Columbia River before flowing west into the ocean.  Of the watershed itself, 84% is privately owned, a majority of which is cropland. As a result, most—if not all—of the available water in the Lower Snake Watershed has already been spoken for, according to the Department of Ecology (Ecology) in its WRIA 33 report. Especially during summer months when demand is highest and flow levels are lowest, growing populations, declining groundwater levels, changing climate patterns, and existing excessive damming and pollution have reduced water availability to dangerous levels for local communities and the environment. As of this report, no instream flow rule or watershed plan exists to address this issue.

The Lower Snake Watershed has been designated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as critical habitat for four threatened species of salmon. As recently as 1930, half a million salmon ran through the Snake River annually, but by 1990, only 78 made the full trip. In their recovery plan, NOAA reports that more than half of historic salmon habitat has been blocked by dams, with remaining spawning areas in wide river valleys often degraded by development, withdrawals of water, and erosion. Despite being listed as threatened for decades, most wild Snake River salmon and Steelhead returns remain at about the same levels as when they were first listed in the late 1990s. More importantly, the wild returns are still nowhere near NOAA recovery targets, which must be met for eight consecutive years. Federal courts have ruled repeatedly that salmon recovery is impossible without dam removal along the Lower Snake River, but no action has materialized.

Exacerbating the damage to salmon populations and water scarcity is the issue of pollution in the Lower Snake Watershed. In a study conducted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), it was reported that the Lower Snake waters are degraded enough as to be listed under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act. This designation is reserved for waters that do not meet the standards of the Clean Water Act and requires Washington State to establish Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) of discharge into the river. However, most of the land in the watershed is private cropland whose owners have senior irrigation water rights. Therefore, it is extremely difficult for Ecology to monitor all activity affecting the river. This irrigation, combined with grazing livestock and sedimentation from forest roads, causes unmitigated runoff and poses an ongoing threat to salmon populations and overall ecosystem health.

While water levels are declining, and water is not legally available, Ecology has not closed the watershed to new appropriations. However, Ecology has stated that new water appropriation is unlikely without full mitigation. Despite this, the watershed and salmon populations that rely on it are in danger. There is currently no minimum flow level established for the watershed, nor any state recovery plan. New water appropriations have mostly halted, but senior rights holders are still able to take water beyond recoverable levels, and several dams along the river are detrimental to threatened salmon runs. In watersheds like this one where multiple issues intersect, establishing instream flow rules is critical. Instream flow rules in the Lower Snake River Watershed could ensure sufficient water levels and habitat for salmon runs, make the stream more resilient to pollution, and help mitigate overuse from senior water rights holders. CELP urges the Department of Ecology to follow up on its responsibility to set instream flows for WRIA 33 to ensure quality and quantity of water for critical salmon populations and local communities.


Boise Conference on Ethics, Hells Canyon Dams, and the Columbia River Treaty – March 14, 2016

News Advisory

Contacts:

Conference:

  • When: March 14, 8:30am-4:00pm
  • Where: Boise State University, Student Union Building
  • Cost: Free and open to the public
  • RSVP:  www.celp.org/ethics-boise/
  • RSVP Deadline: March 10

Religious and tribal leaders from the Snake River and Columbia Basins will lead a one-day conference on ethics and the future of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The conference is spurred by two events: re-negotiation of the U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty, and re-licensing of Idaho Power Company’s Hells Canyon Complex of dams.

Many are unaware of the Snake River and Columbia River dams’ negative effects to native people, and the exclusion of native people from the decisions to build them. Speakers will explore ethical frameworks for these decisions that embrace indigenous people, salmon and the waters of both rivers. Native people impacted directly by dam-building will describe past and present effects on their people and cultures, and native and religious leaders will describe opportunities to modernize river management that promote justice for all people and the health of the river.

This is the third in a conference series titled “One River, Ethics Matter,” to explore the moral dimensions of the dam-building era, with a focus on Indian tribes and First Nations, and the rivers themselves. The Columbia River Pastoral Letter, issued by Northwest Catholic bishops in 2001, provides a foundation and framework for the conference series. This series is modeled on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation public dialogue in the wake of apartheid. This Boise conference follows two in Spokane and Portland.

Speakers include: Charlotte Rodrique, chair of the Burns-Paiute Tribe; Pauline Terbasket, director of the Okanagan Nation Alliance in British Columbia; Bishop Martin Wells, Eastern Washington-Idaho Lutheran Synod; Ted Howard, cultural resources director of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes; Leotis McCormack, Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee; and Rabbi Daniel Fink of Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise.

Earlier conferences in Spokane and Portland explored the profound effects of dams from Grand Coulee upstream on tribes and First Nations, and how protecting flood plain settlement and development in the Portland area has come at the cost of permanently flooding river valleys and native homelands upstream. The Boise conference will examine companion issues in the Snake River as well as the Columbia.


Hosted by
Departments of Anthropology and Political Science & School of Public Service
Boise State University