Testimony of Scott Yates

Director, Idaho Water Office

Trout Unlimited

 

Field Hearing on Cooperation with States on Bull Trout Recovery under the Endangered Species Act

 

U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works

Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Water

Boise, Idaho

August 26, 2003

 

 

 

Senator, my name is Scott Yates, and I appear today on behalf of Trout Unlimited (TU) in testifying about bull trout recovery efforts in Idaho.   By way of introduction, I will talk briefly about some of the substantial progress that has already been made to restore bull trout, as well as identifying some of the key remaining obstacles to recovery, including stream dewatering that fragments habitat.  I will then spend the bulk of my time talking about project-specific work that illustrates successful, ground-up recovery efforts that involve cooperation with landowners.  I'll conclude with a couple of ideas regarding how such efforts can be expanded in order to ensure that recovery efforts are speedy and able to meet the needs of both landowners and bull trout.

 

Trout Unlimited is the nation’s largest coldwater conservation organization with a mission to conserve, protect, and restore North America’s trout, salmon, and steelhead fisheries and the watersheds upon which they depend.  Trout Unlimited is a private, non-profit organization with 127,000 members and 450 chapters nationwide.  There are approximately 1,900 TU members in Idaho with chapters in Boise, Sandpoint, Twin Falls, Pocatello, Idaho Falls, and in both Sun Valley and Teton Valley.  These local chapters are extremely active and work with state and federal resource agencies and private landowners to accomplish salmonid habitat restoration goals throughout the state.

 

I am a member of Trout Unlimited’s national staff working out of our Idaho Falls Office, and currently serve as the Director of the TU Idaho Water Office.  We started our Idaho water program in January 2003, and our efforts are part of a larger TU program with field offices in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah that focuses on streamflow restoration issues in the West.  The primary reason for establishing field offices in each of these states is to ensure that our organizational approach to streamflow issues correlates with the diversity associated with water law in the West.  In other words, water law is primarily a function of state law, and each state has very specific water code provisions intended to deal with the use and allocation of water within their borders.  Our program is designed to address specific state resource problems based on the inherent local nature of such problems, and be responsive to local efforts to deal with the difficult technical, legal, and policy issues associated with protecting or restoring streamflows.

 

The TU Idaho Water Office has focused our initial efforts on identifying ground-based projects where we can work with state and federal resource agencies and private landowners to identify and implement streamflow restoration projects.  This includes efforts in important bull trout recovery areas such as the Upper Salmon River’s Pahsimeroi River Basin and the Little Lost River and its tributaries.

 

Introduction

 

While the metaphor is overused, bull trout are like the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to indicating water quality and quantity problems.  Across the Columbia River Basin and other parts of the Pacific Northwest, resident bull trout were historically found in remote headwater streams that were clear and clean. Fish utilized bigger tributary and river systems for spawning migrations to access natal streams.  Both the small resident and larger migratory or “fluvial” fish flourished in central and northern Idaho’s rivers and streams.  While many of these populations remain at varying levels of abundance and health, the larger fluvial fish that migrated regularly and occupied the lower reaches of tributaries and the mainstem portion of most rivers have been essentially cut off at the knees in terms of accessible habitat.

 

There are a number of causes for the decline in the migratory life history form of bull trout.  The two primary causes are fish passage barriers and stream dewatering both of which fragment historical bull trout habitats.  The former cause boils down to the need to address fish passage and screening issues at both agricultural and hydroelectric dams and diversions.  This is in fact one area where the State of Idaho has been as successful as any other state in the region and where the federal state relationship in terms of ESA recovery planning and implementation has been successful: screening and providing volitional and unimpeded upstream and downstream fish passage on small and medium size irrigation dams and diversion structures in areas where ESA-listed fish are present.

 

Fifteen years ago addressing such concerns, in light of the sheer number of diversions and the huge administrative task associated with prioritizing and funding conservation activities and the outreach to private landowners, seemed unachievable.  We now know that conservation efforts are paying dividends and increasing the survival and recruitment of both adult and juvenile salmon, steelhead, and resident trout in places like the Upper Salmon River.  Collaborators such as the Idaho Department of Fish & Game and Upper Salmon River Watershed Project should be commended for their fish screening efforts.

 

Stream dewatering, however, is the more difficult issue in many bull trout recovery areas where lack of habitat connectivity is a primary factor for species decline.  Because of unnaturally low flows there simply isn’t enough water in many rivers and streams year-round to support all bull trout life history stages.  The problem is especially evident in the lower end of important tributaries and the river mainstem below them.  There is no insidious plot to dewater these streams.  In most areas, traditional farming and ranching operations have done what they’ve always done: take the amount of water that they have been authorized to use pursuant to state law in order to meet crop or cattle production needs.  Further, Idaho is not alone in terms of the need to address dewatering issues.  Water use and impacts to traditional bull trout habitat are similar in areas of Oregon and Washington east of the Cascade Mountain Range, the Klamath River Basin, and parts of northwest Montana including the Blackfoot River drainage.

 

The unfortunate reality and legacy of these traditional water use operations is that parts of many tributaries with functioning habitat – mostly on either U.S. Forest Service or U.S. Bureau of Land Management Lands – now serve as islands of isolated habitat and aquatic systems have become disconnected or fragmented.  This has grave implications for life history diversity and does not bode well for bull trout recovery.  In other words, there is no longer the necessary genetic interchange between bull trout populations that historically occurred; the larger migratory bull trout no longer have access to important spawning and rearing grounds, and the genetic integrity, diversity, and legacy of this important Idaho native fish are at risk. 

 

We cannot recover bull trout without dealing with these important streamflow issues.  However, in TU’s opinion, there is much occurring in Idaho on the ground in places like the Lemhi River, Big Hat Creek, and other parts of the Upper Salmon River Basin that offers encouragement regarding the possibility for creative solutions.  Further, the Idaho examples and streamflow restoration activities in other western states show that many of the solutions are developed at the local level, create much needed incentives for private landowners, and provide long-term benefits for both the rural economy and ESA-listed species.

 

Trout Unlimited is a relatively new stakeholder in places like the Upper Salmon River Basin.  We do not have the history of involvement that many of the federal and state agencies and private landowners have in places like the Lemhi River drainage.  But our organization does have a long history of working with resource agencies and private landowners to improve salmonid habitat in Idaho.  We are working hard to identify places to restore streamflow, and develop creative solutions that compliment federal, state, and landowner efforts.  Two of our initial focus areas are in important bull trout recovery areas, the Pahsimeroi River and the Little Lost River.

 

 

 

 

The Pahsimeroi River

 

Trout Unlimited kicked off a long-term partnership with the BLM in 2003 to work towards large-scale habitat restoration in the Pahsimeroi River drainage.  Virtually all of the Pahsimeroi River tributaries that drain the southern portion of Lemhi Mountain Range have been historically captured as they emerged from federal lands and diverted via canal to provide irrigation water.  One of the primary goals of the TU/BLM partnership is to design strategies to restore the stream channel on various Pahsimeroi tributaries so that water is able to make from the headwater areas on federal lands all the way to connect to the mainstem Pahsimeroi River.  Obviously, in order to achieve such goals, streamflow restoration must occur.

 

As previously mentioned, TU is a newcomer to Upper Salmon River streamflow restoration efforts.  Discussions regarding the restoration of streamflows in the Pahsimeroi have been ongoing for a number of years, and various projects have been proposed both to restore mainstem flows and tributaries like Little Morgan Creek and Falls Creek.  Agencies such as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Resource Conservation Service, Idaho Department of Fish & Game, and Idaho Department of Water Resources and numerous private landowners have been involved in these discussions.  Each of the proposals would go a long way toward restoring the Pahsimeroi system for both anadromous salmon and steelhead and bull trout.  The success of each project will depend on long-term persistence and the eventual buy-in from the landowner and water user community.

 

I’d like to talk briefly about one particular Pahsimeroi River tributary – Falls Creek – because it is the first area of emphasis for the TU/BLM partnership and includes a number of project components that help illustrate the complexity of these large-scale flow restoration projects from the standpoint of project development, design, funding, and implementation.

 

As with other Pahsimeroi River tributaries, water users in the Falls Creek sub-drainage have diverted most of the streamflow as it leaves higher elevation Forest Service land and then delivered the water through ditches to traditional hay and pasture operations.  The goal of the project is to work with private landowners to modernize the irrigation delivery and water use system to maximize efficiency so that traditional ranching operations are maintained while at the same time additional water is freed up to help reconnect Falls Creek to Big Creek and the mainstem Pahsimeroi River system and provide additional stream habitat.

 

Obviously, project development is complex because the project involves both private and federal lands.  Further, various federal and state agencies are involved each with varying jurisdictions and interests.  For instance, the BLM is primarily concerned with restoring the stream channel and aquatic environment for the portion of Falls Creek that traverses through its lands.  At the same time, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is responsible for recovering ESA-listed bull trout on both federal and private lands in the Falls Creek system.  Finally, the Idaho Department of Water Resources is responsible for the water rights analysis and ensuring that any type of strategy to conserve water and restore streamflows comports with the limited amount of flexibility that the Idaho Water Code provides to protect and restore streamflows.

 

In terms of funding, large-scale restoration projects such as Falls Creek are expensive.  The final project will likely include a new diversion structure, screen and pump, thousands of feet of mainline pipe, new center pivot sprinklers, and all of the costs associated with ensuring that once water returns to the system there is a technically defensible strategy to enable the water – at the very least during strategic migration periods – to make it all the way to the Pahsimeroi River.  Funding is being raised from various federal sources including the Fish Restoration and Irrigation Mitigation Act (FRIMA), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Landowner Incentive Fund, and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and private sources such as the Idaho Council of Trout Unlimited necessary to ensure that the funds are “matched” as required by most of the federal funding programs.

 

Finally, the technical issues associated with reconnecting tributaries are difficult.  It is important to note that Falls Creek – primarily because of historic water use operations – has not had consistent flows for much of the last century.  The current stream channel below the existing diversions is barely discernible.  Therefore, a substantial amount of funding is required to design and implement a stream channel restoration strategy.  Further, even with such a strategy, there are considerable uncertainties associated with restoring flows to a tributary like Falls Creek with a substantial alluvial fan, and questions remain whether or how often it will actually reconnect with Big Springs and the mainstem Pahsimeroi River.  Falls Creek serves as a prime example of the unmistakable and complex nexus between restoring flows and habitat restoration in central Idaho.  In most cases where a stream has been dewatered and disconnected for a substantial term of years, one cannot occur without the other.

 

In sum, large-scale restoration projects that have a streamflow component take an inordinate amount of time to develop and implement, are extremely expensive, and are technically complex.  But, for TU’s money, they are worth it.  For much of the past two decades, the emphasis for fish protection and restoration in the Columbia River Basin has been on partial fixes and technologically based solutions such as hatcheries.  Large scale flow and habitat restoration efforts like those embodied in the Falls Creek project are worth the uncertainty because they involve collaboration at the most local level and actually deal with the underlying problems and factors for species decline in a comprehensive and systematic fashion.  These projects go well beyond merely treating the symptoms of species decline in an unorganized and disconnected way.

 

 

Little Lost River

 

I wanted to talk a little bit about what I think has the possibility for a great success story and that’s bull trout recovery efforts in the Little Lost River system.  The Little Lost River originates in headwater streams that drain the Lemhi Mountain Range from the north and the Lost River Mountain Range to the south.  Portions of the Little Lost River Watershed traverse through Lemhi, Custer, and Butte counties in one of least populated and extremely isolated parts of central Idaho.  The Little Lost River is one of several isolated streams – such as the Big Lost River, Birch Creek, Medicine Lodge Creek, Beaver Creek, and Camas Creek – in the northern part of the Snake River Basin that have no current overland connection to other streams in the Snake River Basin.  These rivers and streams all individually “sink” into the large lava formations in the Upper Snake River Plain and are collectively referred to as the “Sinks Drainages” or “Lost Streams.”

 

Because of the isolated nature of the Little Lost River bull trout populations, and the fact that these fish persist near the southern edge of the species’ range, it is extraordinarily important from a biodiversity perspective to ensure long term persistence of bull trout in the Little Lost River system.  Both the Draft Bull Trout Recovery Plan (DBTRP) and state fish management programs emphasize the importance of bull trout in the Little Lost River and its tributaries.  Further, the DBTRP highlights the factors for species decline and current activities limiting recovery in the Little Lost River drainage, including inadequate streamflows and fish barriers associated with irrigation diversions located on key tributaries that block bull trout migration and access to spawning and rearing habitat located on federal lands.

 

The rancher landowners in the Little Lost River drainage have made great strides in the past decade to accommodate the water quantity and quality needs of bull trout.  Because of these efforts, and a tremendous group of agency biologists that have worked hard to get substantive work done on the ground, the Little Lost system is one of the bull trout recovery units where the light at the end of the long tunnel associated with ESA recovery is actually quite bright – and growing stronger.

 

Trout Unlimited is currently partnering with federal and state agencies to fulfill one of the primary information needs in the Little Lost system by completing a comprehensive fish barrier and diversion assessment.  This work will be followed up by outreach to landowners to fix collaboratively any problems associated with existing diversion and ensure that such structures are properly screened and adequate fish passage provided for adult and juvenile fish.

 

Like the Pahsimeroi River, there are some tributary stream reconnect issues with which we must also deal.  Also like the Pahsimeroi, there may be some complex state water law issues that need to be analyzed and creative streamflow transactions and strategies developed.  However, current indications are that the pertinent landowners are willing to work with other stakeholders to fix those problems.  Further, because the actual distance these streams have been historically dewatered is shorter than normal, the technical issues associated with the projects should not be as extreme as the earlier cited examples in the Pahsimeroi system.  Trout Unlimited is committed to working with all of the stakeholders to ensure that these streamflow and habitat restoration activities occur.

 

Finally, while not specifically streamflow related there are land acquisition opportunities in the Little Lost River system that would guarantee conservation benefits both along the mainstem and on important tributaries like Wet Creek.  These opportunities involve willing sellers, with the only question remaining being where the funding will come from.  A timely influx of funding to the Little Lost system would effectively ensure that the aforementioned fish passage and screening, tributary stream reconnect and flow restoration, and land acquisition activities were successful, and a verifiable bull trout success story accomplished.

 

Project Funding and Conservation Group Participation

 

I’m going to issue a battle cry that has been heard early and often in the Columbia River Basin: We need a lot of money to get these projects done.  Further, the need for money is not limited to asking for more, but also asking for a specific kind.  We’ve certainly come a long way in recent years regarding funding opportunities for stream and habitat restoration projects.  Federal funds provided via the Bonneville Power Administration, the Farm Bill, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, or numerous other sources are incredibly helpful in terms of providing money for project development and completion.  At the same time, direct appropriations to high priority areas where streamflow restoration is essential to species recovery would go along way towards completing a multitude of expensive but necessary projects.

 

I’d also like to put a plug in for an expanded role for conservation groups such as TU in identifying and completing important streamflow restoration projects in high priority bull trout recovery areas.  In light of how thinly spread most agencies are in Idaho, and the fact that many of these project involve collaboration and substantial time spent on the ground with a multitude of landowners, there is a real role for groups willing to devote field time to getting to know the issues and communities in specific bull trout recovery areas.  Further, many such groups have a proven track record when it comes to raising private funds for specific projects, an increasingly important factor when assessing the daunting task associated with both matching federal funds and raising the additional money necessary to complete expensive and complex streamflow restoration and stream reconnect projects.

 

Conclusion

 

The State of Idaho, federal resource agencies, and other stakeholders have made substantial progress in the past decade to assess and identify measures necessary to recover bull trout.  Streamflow restoration projects are obviously one of the more difficult recovery measures in light of both the complexity of most projects and the historical lightning rod nature of water issues in the West.  At the same time, TU believes that such projects are of the utmost important to recover the species.  Further, we firmly think that such projects can be accomplished in an even-handed manner that benefits landowners and the rural communities where most bull trout populations exist.