Snake River Stewardship Program
CASE STUDY — Take a look at the Snake River from above, and it’s not all that unlike the reptile. Stretched out among landscapes as if sunning itself on the country and winding between mountains, plains and canyons.
Yet the river is not named after any resemblance to its namesake. In fact, it was a misinterpretation that simply stuck. The Shoshone tribe, one of the first communities supported by the river, created a hand sign that was meant to represent fish, due to the abundance of salmon. The Europeans crossing the Rockies thought the sign meant snake.
At least that’s how the story goes.
One thing hasn’t changed since then: Many rely on the Snake’s health and power. It’s certainly what you’d call a “working” river.
At 1,078 miles long, the Snake is the largest North American river emptying into the Pacific Ocean and the largest tributary of the Columbia River.
It’s been used to generate hydropower since 1900, and today, more than 500,000 customers rely on it for electricity. The river also supports vibrant agricultural and recreation communities and salmon, steelhead and white sturgeon populations.
“Idaho Power Company is celebrating its 100th year of providing reliable, low-cost electricity to the homes, schools and businesses in our community,” said Chris Randolph, Environmental Affairs Director with Idaho Power Company. “To ensure this resource for the future, we must balance responsible energy use with the protection of the Snake River.”
As part of the federal process for relicensing its three-dam Hells Canyon Complex, Idaho Power is mitigating the effects of the Hells Canyon Complex on late summer and fall water temperatures. Warm water from the watershed collects in Brownlee Reservoir and flows out of Hells Canyon several degrees warmer than current state and federal standards allow. Idaho Power has considered numerous options to meet temperature requirements.
Working with The Freshwater Trust, Idaho Power is proposing a restoration program intended to decrease thermal loading to the river upstream of the Hells Canyon Complex and provide widespread environmental benefits for native species such as the Snake River Physa (an endangered snail), white sturgeon, and mountain whitefish.
“The Freshwater Trust provides experience with developing and implementing watershed restoration programs within the regulatory framework of the Clean Water Act,” said Ralph Myers, Environmental Supervisor with Idaho Power Company.
Perhaps one of the quintessential examples is The Freshwater Trust’s project with the City of Medford, Oregon. The Freshwater Trust planted trees along the banks of the Rogue River to offset the warm water discharged by the wastewater treatment plant.
The strategy was in opposition to the traditional grey infrastructure solutions, such as cooling towers and holding ponds, often used for regulatory compliance.
Using modeling, satellite imagery and 21st century technology, The Freshwater Trust is able to quantify the impacts of natural infrastructure. As an example, the amount of sunlight blocked by a tree planted on a riverbank can be calculated, allowing for an action like planting trees to be weighed as a viable option for compliance with state-regulated total maximum daily temperature loads for a river. This approach, defined by The Freshwater Trust as Quantified Conservation, is a method of using data and technology to ensure that every restoration action has a positive outcome for the environment. It’s about leveraging the best practices used by businesses and social sector organizations to restore the state of the natural environment.
Planting native vegetation along key tributaries to the Snake River, collaborating with irrigators to reduce agricultural runoff, enhancing floodplains and wetlands associated with the river bank and existing islands, and even creating new islands in the Snake River are all part of the proposed stewardship plan for the Snake River watershed.
“A watershed restoration program will improve temperature and habitat conditions throughout the area of implementation,” said Myers. “The program is a way to allow stakeholders to work together to improve water quality at a scale that will be meaningful to natural resources.”
Over time, the instream restoration projects and streamside revegetation projects will reduce the thermal load to the Snake River by 15 billion kilocalories every day.
“Our ability to identify the true outcomes of a restoration project and assign a value to nature allows us to bring another option to the table,” said Alex Johnson, Senior Freshwater Solutions Director with The Freshwater Trust.
“The Snake River is not functioning like it is supposed to, and we’re presenting an option with benefits that extend far beyond just allowing Idaho Power to obtain relicensing.”
New wetlands, cooler water temperatures, and native vegetation would improve habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife calling the area home.
“Idaho Power is most excited about being able to implement a program that will result in environmental benefits in a way that also benefits local communities, other stakeholders, our customers, and shareholders,” said Randolph. “It could serve as a model for future environmental enhancement and mitigation efforts that over the long-term could result in meaningful changes to the quality and function of the Snake River.”
Instream restoration work in the Middle Snake River could span a 30-mile reach of the river that still supports remnant populations of native species such as white sturgeon and Physa snails and was historically used by fall Chinook salmon for spawning and migration. Riparian revegetation projects on 10 key tributaries could cover more than 150 miles.
An extensive permitting and review process must be completed before the work takes place. Idaho Power and The Freshwater Trust have conducted preliminary assessments to establish the feasibility and effectiveness of different aspects of the program.
“Being able to provide a high level of certainty and transparency to the proposed program has changed conversations with regulators,” said Randolph. “It has allowed regulators to gain a level of definition and certainty necessary for them to be more creative in their thinking relative to mitigation options.”
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Idaho Department of Environmental Quality issued draft certifications for the program in December 2016, including a wholesale incorporation of the Snake River Stewardship Program.
“The Freshwater Trust provides perspective to the requirements and necessary components of a watershed restoration program that can be supported by stakeholders with environmental priorities,” said Myers. “Their abilities to develop and plan watershed restoration on a large scale, coupled with IPC’s research and implementation capabilities are very complementary in developing and implementing a large, landscape-scale watershed restoration program with this level of compliance accountability.”
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