By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
The sight of Brownlee Reservoir filled nearly to its brim wont be a mirage this summer.
Idaho Power Company officials expect the reservoir to rise throughout the spring and to approach or reach full pool by Memorial Day, said Roger Fuhrman, director of water management for the Boise corporation.
Brownlee should remain close to its capacity through at least the Fourth of July, he said.
After the holiday Idaho Power probably will release extra water to help endangered chinook salmon downstream in the Snake and Columbia rivers, Fuhrman said.
The companys tentative schedule for Brownlee is almost identical to last years, he said.
And last year was a good one, according to people who plan their spring and summer weekends based on the reservoirs level.
Friends of Brownlee would be very supportive of a repeat of last year, said Mike Nelson of Baker City, who started the non-profit organization about three years ago.
Friends of Brownlee lobbies Idaho Power to keep Brownlee as close to full as possible, as much of the year as possible.
Last year was a great year for fishing, which converted into a great year for tourism, Nelson said.
A drop of 10 feet in Brownlees level can turn potential profit into certain loss for merchants in Richland, Huntington, Halfway and other small towns on or near the reservoirs shore.
When theres enough water to submerge Brownlees several boat ramps, anglers, water skiers and other recreationists flock to the reservoir.
But when those ramps are landlocked, as they were for many long weeks during the mid and late 1990s, visitors haul their boats and their wallets to some wetter destination.
If we have water our business thrives, said Rick Atwell, who bought Eagle Valley RV and mobile home park in Richland last May.
Last years consistently high water level at Brownlee attracted lots of tourists, and also led to a bumper crop of Brownlees sought-after crappie.
Fishing was outstanding last year, Atwell said.
And he expects anglers will be busy reeling and unhooking this year, as well he caught 45 crappie in an hour and a half earlier this week.
Atwell said he released all the fish he caught. The females, he said, were full of eggs, and I want them to spawn.
Why does the reservoir lower?
Fuhrman said Idaho Power has three main reasons for lowering Brownlee downstream flood control, boosting flows for salmon, and pumping more power from Brownlee Dams electricity turbines.
During spring, flood control is the primary factor, he said.
Idaho Powers federal license for its three Hells Canyon dams (Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon) requires the company to maintain Brownlee at the level prescribed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the spring runoff, Fuhrman said.
When the mountain snowpack is well above average, as it was in 1997 and 1999, the Corps of Engineers may require Idaho Power to nearly drain Brownlee.
But the past two years the snowpack in the mountains upstream from the reservoir has been below average, Fuhrman said.
That means the Corps of Engineers target for Idaho Power this year is modest about 24 feet below full pool by the end of March, Fuhrman said.
The companys requirement for the end of April is between 17 and 21 feet below full, he said.
Although the Corps has not made a final decision, Fuhrman said its likely that sometime in May the agency will release Idaho Power from its flood control obligations.
At that time the company intends to begin refilling the reservoir more rapidly, bringing it near capacity by the end of May, Fuhrman said.
Nelson said Friends of Brownlee understands that during the spring runoff Idaho Power must comply with the Corps of Engineers orders.
We have no issues when (Idaho Power) does their drafting this time of year because thats specifically charged to them in the license, he said.
However, Nelson said Friends of Brownlee hopes to change the flood control requirements in the new license Idaho Power is applying for. The companys current license expires in 2005.
The reason, Nelson said, is that Brownlee has such a minor effect on flood control an estimated half an inch in the Columbia River at Portland.
Friends of Brownlee feels differently about the summer reservoir drawdowns for salmon, the so-called fish flushes, Nelson said.
Idaho Powers license doesnt require the company to release water for salmon, but if it refused it could be vulnerable to lawsuits filed by groups claiming such a refusal violates the federal Endangered Species Act.