The Snake River, the longest tributary of the mighty Columbia, is a critical stronghold for fall Chinook. Managing actions to protect and restore the river’s health is no small undertaking. Add into the mix a series of dams along the Hells Canyon that generate clean hydropower but present obstacles to fish and water conditions.
“It’s clear that to improve conditions downstream, we have to start improving conditions upstream,” said David Primozich, vice president of water. “Stopping excess sediment and nutrients from getting into the river, and reducing high water temperatures, are key.”
It’s this long arc toward restoration that TFT is on. More than a decade ago, we began collaborating with Idaho Power Company to put in motion a comprehensive plan to recover water quality in this critical Pacific Northwest watershed. There were some large gears to move, including quantifying thermal benefits from recovering streamside shade and improving conditions in the main channel, while also securing agreement from multiple regulatory agencies on a new approach. We are extending the earlier momentum we created in Oregon around water quality trading into Idaho
“Change happens when we partner with the right people in the right place. Working together, we pull the levers that shift the momentum of restoration,” said Primozich.
In the decade of working with IPC, we’ve also collaborated with others along the Lower Boise River, a tributary of the Snake. Between 2013 and 2015, we completed field-level assessments for sediment reductions, jointly funded by four cities and two corporations. While this collaboration set the stage for a trading framework in Idaho, the regulatory permits have long timelines. But interest is growing. In fact, in 2021, the state of Idaho passed legislation that encourages water quality trading alternatives in municipal discharge permits.
Using Data to Drive New Programs
IPC’s $350 million Snake River Stewardship Program is a catalyzing force in the basin. While in its pilot phase, which began in 2016, the program has enhanced eight acres of floodplains, planted 37,000 native trees and shrubs, and prevented 1,900 tons (nearly 4 million pounds) of sediment and 2,950 pounds of phosphorus per year from washing off fields into the river. Further riparian restoration and instream work is slated to accelerate over the next few years as the program transitions from pilot phase to full implementation.
“Hundreds of riparian revegetation projects will be implemented as part of the SRSP,” said Olivia Duren, environmental quality program manager. “Some of these projects will be intensively monitored. A vegetation monitoring selection tool we’ve developed provides a robust way to objectively select the right number and types of projects to monitor so that their results are representative and useful for assessing the program’s success.”
Building the management systems and tools for the SRSP has a broader effect. The tools are deployed and tested first in one project area, such as the Snake, and then ripple out to allow us to use the tools with partners in other basins. The impact of innovations driven by the SRSP is multiplied.
In 2020, TFT began collaborating with IPC on a second program along the mid-Snake to assess the potential to reduce phosphorus loads that cause algae blooms in reservoirs. Using TFT analytics, high-efficiency projects can be identified and grouped into cost-optimized portfolios that meet sediment and nutrient reduction targets. These nutrient loads exacerbate the methylation of mercury that can ultimately make fish unhealthy to eat. IPC will use this analysis to work with regulators and stakeholders to drive new data-driven programs for the watershed.
“Improving water quality in a system as big as the Snake River requires watershed-scale efforts across a broad range of stakeholders,” said Brett Dumas, environmental affairs director at Idaho Power. “The Snake River is the cornerstone of southern Idaho’s culture, communities, and incredible natural resources. Working together with groups like TFT who share a common vision for sustainable, holistic solutions will ensure the Snake River remains a valuable resource for future generations to come.”