Stabilize Brownlee water levels

March 26, 2002 12:00 am

Were glad to hear Idaho Powers projection that Brownlee Reservoirs water level will be usable by anglers and boaters during the height of the 2002 tourist season.

Our enthusiasm pales in comparison, however, to the hopes of Richland, Halfway and Huntington businesses that rely on sales of food, equipment, fuel and rooms to tourists.

Two good years in a row, however, wont solve the long-term problem: fluctuating water levels that at times make it impossible to launch a boat on Brownlee Reservoir, and that are to the populations of warmwater fish anglers desire.

Brownlees popularity boomed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it was rated one of Oregons top boating destinations.

In the springs of 1997, 1999 and 2000, however, the Army Corps of Engineers ordered Idaho Power Co. to all but empty Brownlee for flood control in anticipation of runoff from heavy winter snowpacks (This year will be different, thanks to a light snowpack in the Idaho mountains).

In those years, the reservoir remained so low through much of the spring that Brownlees boat ramps werent usable.

The problem was compounded by fish flushes for salmon in the Snake/Columbia rivers system, where water is released from behind the dams to raise the levels of the rivers.

Unfortunately, discouraged anglers begin to dismiss Brownlee as a destination. Calling ahead, they hear the bad news, or worse they make the trek only to find theyll be fishing from a rocky shore instead of a boat. As a result, the reservoirs popularity plummeted.

If 2002 proves a strong follow to the 2001 season, struggling businesses in Baker Countys Panhandle and Huntington could begin to see some recovery.

The danger emerges, however, when good years pressure businesses to grow to meet their customers needs. How can you make the necessary investment if after one, two or three good years, you could just as easily face a string of bad years?

No market is guaranteed, of course. But the fluctuations of Brownlee Reservoir are not natural phenomena, but matters of public policy. Thats why the efforts of Baker County and the Friends of Brownlee are so important.

The Friends quickly amassed a membership list three years ago, lending weight and reach to its activities on behalf of the reservoir.

Baker County has been looking for a way to leverage funding for reservoir road and recreation area maintenance from Idaho Power as part of the Hells Canyon Complex dam relicensing process.

Its in that process that Baker County also has some hope of prevailing upon the Army Corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service to recalculate flood control and fish flush policies so more water stays in Brownlee Reservoir.

The lessons learned in the Klamath Basin, where fish-saving measures may have actually harmed an endangered species, argue for a review of the rationale behind fish flushes. And flood control measures cant be so set in stone that a communitys economic plight is easily washed away.