August 4, 2008

Big Help for the Little Guys

By Andrew Weeks, The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho

Aug. 4--Sometimes nature can use a little boost.

High water levels and faster flows along parts of the Snake River -- such as the Hagerman stretch below Lower Salmon Falls Dam -- is giving a boost to young steelhead trout and salmon as they make their way to the Pacific Ocean.

"That's why the water is up," said Randy McBride, owner of High Adventure River Tours in Hagerman.

Water levels along McBride's 10-mile float tour, from Hagerman to the Bliss Bridge, have recently been running at about 7,800 cubic feet per second, he said. Normal levels in the area average about 4,500 to 5,000 cfs.

The high water levels, said McBride, make the tours go a bit quicker but not enough to spoil any fun. And now the water level -- which seemed to have peaked in the area last weekend, he said -- is returning to normal.

"By this time next week, it should be back to normal. It's almost normal today," McBride said Friday.

The additional water was released from Milner Dam on July 7 and comes from a variety of sources, including reservoirs above Milner such as American Falls, Palisades and Jackson, said Mike Beus, water operations manager for the Idaho Bureau of Reclamation. The bureau has already started slowing the water flow, but some areas of the river will likely experience above-average levels until mid- to late-August.

Annually releasing the extra water was made a requirement in 2004 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, said Beus. "It is to help juvenile fish that are migrating to the ocean get through the lower Snake River faster," he said.

Millions of steelhead trout, a species that live in the ocean but spawn in freshwater, are raised locally. The Hagerman National Fish Hatchery, for instance, annually raise about 1.4 million steelhead. Anna Ray, fisheries program assistant, recently told the Times-News that when the fish reach 6 to 8 inches long, usually by about August, the hatchery releases the fish into the Snake River. From there the fish travel to the Salmon and Columbia rivers and eventually make their way to the Pacific Ocean, about 900 miles away.

It can take the young fish, called smolt, up to 30 days to make the trip. In the spring, the fish return to freshwater to spawn. At a young age, steelhead closely resemble rainbow trout but grow to be much larger, reaching weights of anywhere from 5 to 30 pounds.

Salmon also travel the Snake River as they make their way to the ocean.

McBride said he doesn't mind the higher water levels -- or the quicker float trips -- since it helps nature complete its life cycle.

"The higher water flow helps the fish get to where they need to go," he said. "Everyone works together to help push those little ones to the ocean."

Andrew Weeks may be reached at 208-735-3233 or [email protected]


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