Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Project

Posted: Jun 1, 2005
Written by: 
Joshua Zaffos

The Upper Salmon River Basin in central Idaho has a drainage area of about 4 million acres. The watershed project comprises the lands from the mouth of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River to the mainstem river's headwaters, including the tributaries of the Lemhi River, Pahsimeroi River, North Fork, East Fork, and other streams. About 90 percent of the area is public land, but most of the riparian areas and occupied salmon habitat is privately owned.

Objective: To maintain and restore anadromous fish habitat, and achieve a balance between resource protection and use within the watershed through coordination among private, state, tribal, and federal fish and land managers and landowners.

 The Upper Salmon River Basin has a drainage area of about 4 million acres.
Courtesy of Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Project
History: The runs of Pacific salmon and steelhead trout on the Upper Salmon River and its tributaries were legendary within the greater Columbia River Basin. But the fish and the watershed didn't escape the perilous effects of downstream hydropower dams, fish hatcheries, and habitat loss during the last century. Locally, fish habitat in the Lehmi River and other streams dried up due to irrigation and, in the late 1980s, ranchers decided to take action to protect disappearing Chinook salmon. The Lehmi Soil and Water Conservation District earmarked money for habitat improvement and diversion modifications and released water to aid fish passage. The measures helped salmon reach spawning beds, but by 1992, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed Chinook salmon as a threatened species and extended similar protection to steelhead trout in 1997.

The Northwest Power Planning Council - an advisory board to the Bonneville Power Administration, which operates the hydropower dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers - initiated the Model Watershed Project in 1992 to improve salmon and steelhead habitat along tributary streams of the Salmon River. The collaborative project of federal, state, tribal, and private partners purposely dovetailed with the local efforts of the Lemhi district. In 2001, the project was renamed the Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Project (USBWP) and its area was expanded to include the upper river and additional tributaries.

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) offers funds to restore salmon habitat and assist ranchers in implementing management changes. The Lemhi and Custer soil and water conservation districts and an advisory committee of local citizens administer habitat enhancement projects and coordinate projects through the USBWP, which now has a four-person staff. A technical committee of agency experts prioritizes and designs projects to increase stream flows, reduce fish passage barriers, restore riparian vegetation, and create spawning habitat for the threatened fish.

 Old headgate with no fish passage facilities
Accomplishments: In just 12 years, USBWP partners have constructed 57 riparian fencing projects and have protected almost 84 miles of stream. Those projects have promoted riparian vegetation that provides shade and cooler water temperature for the fish and minimizes negative impacts from grazing. Partners have also modified or removed 41 irrigation diversions to eliminate barriers to fish passage. "We're able to improve the overall quality of [stream] habitat and access to habitat," says Russell Knight, USBWP coordinator. "We're taking small bites here and there and it's adding up."

The widespread success of stream restoration has relied on the steady funding from the BPA. Other federal money sources include the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund through NOAA Fisheries, Partners in Wildlife through the Fish & Wildlife Service, and cost-share programs through the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Agency partners have also helped landowners by ushering projects through the web of permits and bureaucratic red tape to receive funding and technical approval of projects. "Over 90 percent of the projects would never be done without the [USBWP]," says Bruce McConnell, chair of the Lemhi Soil and Water Conservation District.

 New headgate with fish ladder
Photos courtesy of Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Project
Still, everyone acknowledges that the willingness of landowners drives the restoration achievements. "We work very hard to maintain our credibility with the landowners," McConnell says, "and, for the most part, people have faith in the [soil and water conservation] districts and the [USBWP]."

Challenges/constraints: Despite the successes, maintaining a high level of collaboration and a local emphasis is still a challenge.

In the past few years, the BPA has increased its scrutiny regarding which projects are funded. The administration says the change reflects greater fiscal responsibility to its ratepayers and a renewed concentration on work that specifically benefits listed fish. But landowners like Bruce Mulkey, former Lemhi district chair, says the BPA "screwed up the process" by removing decision-making outside the region and delaying financial support. Mulkey says the changes have led to lost opportunities when landowners lost interest or the financial means to undertake a cost-share project.

Bureaucratic, federal agencies aren't known for their flexibility - especially when listed species are involved. Still, the USBWP offers a middle ground. Regulatory agencies like the Fish & Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries need to protect the threatened fish, yet are now working with landowners to craft the Lemhi Conservation Plan. The plan would outline conservation measures for irrigators to offset harm done by water withdrawal and then protect them from penalties for "incidental take" of the fish. The agreement could serve as a template for future cooperation to restore the anadromous fish and ensure the livelihood - and active participation - of local ranchers.

"It started locally and remains locally driven," says Knight. "That's one of the keys of success."

For more information see:

Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Project

Northwest Power and Conservation Council Success Story

NRCS "Idaho-Salmon and Ranching"

Bonneville Power Association
Copyright © 2018 Red Lodge Clearinghouse. All rights reserved.