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What Has Happened to Our River?

By Troy Creasy

Reproduced with permission from the Spring 2000 and Summer 2000 editions of Lake Ontario Outdoors

This is a two part article




Part 1
I started to put this piece together and then realized my editorial mentioned that it was Spring, we should be happy and above all, No Whining.

Well I lied, sort of. This will be a continuing article that will try to bring to light the unacceptable water flows that have plagued our Salmon River fishery since the FERC licensing was approved in 1994. I will do my best to explain what is happening on the Salmon River and hopefully I will receive input from readers and organizations that I have contacted while working on this topic.

There are minimum flows that were designed to enhance the fishery, protect aquatic life, and combat erosion. The effectiveness of this license is being scrutinized, and river user groups are scratching their heads.

Depending on the time of year, there are different target levels that are trying to be maintained in the Salmon River reservoir. What is happening is when we get any kind of precipitation (which seldom happens) the water is being dumped as fast as possible so the target level can be reached and maintained. Someone must get a gold star in their employee folder for everyday the water is within the target levels. I wonder if the fish and the river banks care about gold stars. The end result is a very short period of high flood water and a long, long grueling period of low water. I am currently trying to gather data that will allow us to file a complaint with the Federal Environmental Regulatory commission. I am told that there are ways to amend this license. I am sure this will make certain interest groups enraged. But that's life.

There only only a few people that will remember the meeting we had back in 1992 when Cliff Creech (from the DEC), stood in front of a room full of full time river guides and charter captains and said, and I quote, " I don't want you guys to worry about getting involved with the FERC licensing, we (the DEC) have your best interests at stake". Wow!! What the hell happened?

Here we are six years later. The river goes to flood stage more than it ever did. We see 285 to 300 cfs more than we ever did. We see people wading and crossing the river where we never did. We see poor returns of winter fish due to the low water flows. Who is happy? I'm not, I'm livid. I'm going to snap! A well respected fly fisherman I know said it best: "This river dribbles like an old man's pecker."

Do I sound like a disgruntled drift boat guide that just doesn't have enough water to float his boat? Not hardly. Look around people, we don't have a river anymore, we have a creek.
Read on....

While digging into this cluster, I stumbled across the web site for American Rivers, http://www.amrivers.org. They have a very brief description of the Salmon River licensing project, and it reads:



Minimum Flows

A continual base flow for the project (released below the powerhouse) will be provided as described in the water budget model, a comprehensive water-issue document developed in cooperation by Niagara Mohawk, the American Whitewater Affiliation, NYSDEC, New York Rivers United, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A minimum flow for the project was established to form a basis for Atlantic salmon restoration.* A Flow Management Advisory Team (FMAT), consisting of representatives from state and federal agencies, local interest groups and Niagara Mohawk will be established to monitor changing conditions that may affect river flows. If deemed necessary, the FMAT will request to FERC that changes in flows, releases and other water-related issues be considered.

When was the last time you caught an Atlantic Salmon?? I fish over 300 days a year, and my last Atlantic was April of 1999. Again I say, What the hell is going on! We have a FMAT, Flow Management Advisory Team, but what are they doing? Who is in charge, and why haven't we made any changes? Read the above again. Do you see any local names, such as the Chamber of Commerce, business associations, guide associations, area fishing clubs, individuals that own property on the river. Nope. Hmmm, I wonder why.

Who's interests are really being looked out for. The river bank's interest? No. As I mentioned above, we see the Salmon River go into flood stage (2000 cfs or higher) more than ever, and we have been in a three year drought. So much for the river banks.

Maybe the fish. Wild reproduction is occurring and is a wonderful thing, but at Spring and Summer flows (185 cfs), the river temperature skyrockets to what could be above what juvenile Atlantic's can sustain. Can we produce Atlantic's? Maybe, but at what cost. We hear all about a year round fishery. This sounds wonderful, I'm all for it, unless of course it jeopardizes our salmon and steelhead runs, and it now appears that this may be taking place.

Maybe they were looking out for the fisherman. Wrong again. Nobody likes to fish in ankle deep clear water. The fish are packed into small areas and are spooky and seldom bite. This leads to overcrowding and less than ethical techniques. But that is another story.

Where am I going with this? Well I'm trying to make a point. There is no doubt that the licensing project has many positive aspects. The problem is it needs some modifications. Some fine tuning. Let's address the situation and make the appropriate changes. The best way I know is public support. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Below are names and addresses of parties that you can voice your opinion to. Will it do any good? You will never know unless you try. Don't wait. Tell them how you feel. Make copies, save your e-mails, document your phone calls. Please get involved. Readers are welcome to forward their comments to Lake Ontario Outdoors. We will post them and continue this subject next issue. Thanks. Troy



Part 2
Well, my attempt to bring attention to the water flows plaguing the Salmon River corridor was successful. I have been inundated with e-mails, phone calls, letters, cries for help, questions and threats. Yep, even threats. The first person that really wanted to voice the other side of the coin was Bruce Carpenter, Executive Director for New York Rivers United. Below he expresses his views and opinions. Lake Ontario Outdoors does not support nor denounce the opinions of New York Rivers United. As I mentioned in the last issue, there are positive sides to the FERC license, but is the good outweighing the bad?

I could respond to the following article, but I would rather have my readers do this for me. This article, along with the one from the last issue, will be posted on our web site. Feel free to respond on our reader's forum at www.lakeontariooutdoors.com. Why wait. Tell us what is on your mind now.





The Salmon River -- A River Reborn

By: Bruce R. Carpenter
Executive Director, New York Rivers United

The fight to restore the Salmon River began in the 1980's. At that time, Niagara Mohawk, the owner of two dams on the river, was unregulated. In order to make the most of the water for the production of electricity, the river went up and down: the reservoir fluctuated daily and the entire system suffered. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) would normally have had control and could require a license to ensure a balancing of all interests, but at that time the river was not under FERC's jurisdiction.

A legal battle was initiated to force the company into licensing the project. This battle was fought by a coalition of government agencies, conservation groups and recreationists. At stake was the ability to restore one of our state's most productive rivers, a battle for people to fish without having to drag their boats in mid-trip, the re-establishment of a natural fishery and ecosystem, the opportunity for paddlers to enjoy their days on the river, to ensure watershed protection, wetlands and spawning habitat, and to create a place that would continue to build upon the success achieved by local businesses.

We won! The Salmon River was ruled a navigable river, and the company was forced into applying for a FERC license.

FERC licensing in itself is a difficult process. Now the process of gathering information and data, along with aligning different parties had to begin. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and US Fish and Wildlife Service led a team of professionals reviewing environmental documents. Meetings were held in the communities both to gain insight into possible changes and to educate people on restoring a river system.

Not everyone is amenable to change. There are those people who refuse to change or move -- no matter how many meetings, how much information is presented, how their views are incorporated into the process. But the majority of people involved voiced support and admiration for what was being studied and sought in the licensing effort.

Major issues were identified
A base flow in the river below the last dam. This was needed to support an aquatic system that did not at the time exist. Extensive studies to determine how much water was needed were done and reviewed by professionals.

A lake level that supported the natural ecosystem above the project.

Spawning and rearing habitat, wetlands associated with the reservoir, migratory habitat for ducks, geese and shore birds. This lake level also had to accommodate recreation in the summer on the lake.

White water recreation. A large whitewater community was now using the river and did not want its interest eliminated.

Scenic flows over the upper falls and a flow in the by-pass section of the river were another water use. This water flows into the lower reservoir and is reused for enhancement of the lower river.

Finally and most importantly to the company (NIMO), the production of electricity and the ability to make justifiable economic decisions.

I will not go into details over the legal and technical battles that occurred over the next several years. But the final result was positive. A negotiation team was established to try to reach settlement on all the issues and interests. The major tools that were used by the team were the comprehensive studies done over the previous five years, the professional opinion of top biologists, the experience of people who had an interest in the river and probably the most useful tool: a water model budget. This water budget, a computer model, used the data from years of recorded information on the system's high and low water years. Into the model we put the various outflows that the team was negotiating. Hence we were able to predict the effects on the overall system.

You cannot manufacture water. Once it is used it is not replaceable. Nor can you magically block it and save it when it comes too fast. Inflow into the system is our only source. While the reservoirs store water, it is not an inexhaustible supply. When they are full, water must be released. Those are just facts.

Each interest wanted water; each interest wanted water at either the same or at different times. The challenge for us was to accommodate, to the best of our ability, all interests and still achieve our major goal of river restoration, a viable ecosystem. What was developed was a guide curve.

I am very proud to say that the settlement and license that followed achieved that goal. Natural spawning now occurs in the river; aquatic life is there for these fish to grow on; water-related recreation occurs and is on the increase; the reservoir is also a productive system; both are working together. We accomplished this while still maintaining one of the best salmon fisheries in the Northeast and not putting the hydroelectric company out of business. But one other thing was established.

We wanted people to be aware of what was accomplished. We wanted to continue the dialog established during the licensing effort. We wanted various interests to be involved in promoting the river. Most of all, in those years the model told us there was too little or too much water, we wanted all of the interests involved in a process to allocate the resource. So within the settlement we created a flow management team. Its main duty was to work together, as the negotiating team did, for the benefit of the resource. In times of trouble they would advise the decision-makers on allocations. The guide curve would be the tool for forecasting in any given year.

I feel that all the parties involved were proud of what we had accomplished. The agencies had certainly worked hard on achieving balances within their own jurisdiction. The company had given considerably of its revenues. No one was received 100% of what they had asked for, which normally means you have done a good job.

With two of the driest years in decades occurring back to back, the test of the system has come immediately, and while certain people say it proves how wrong the license and settlement are, I can now point clearly to a process that works for the river even under the most severe conditions. It does not work for each individual party (no one can change the license for his own benefit), but if you care about rivers and river systems, you can see a real success.

Maybe someday we can go even further. Maybe someday we can educate enough people to understand how rivers work, why native species are so vital to a system. Maybe someday we can end the petty bickering that hinders long-term changes and maybe someday everyone will see the system for what it is -- a river reborn.

Bruce R. Carpenter, Executive Director
New York Rivers United
PO Box 1460
Rome, NY 13442-1460
(315) 339-2097 phone
(315) 339-6028 fax

My only response to Mr. Carpenter is the recent photos I took of the mass destruction and bank erosion being caused by the huge fluctuation of holding back the water, and then dumping it at one time.










The following is a response from Les Wedge, Regional Fisheries Manager for the DEC. Mr. Wedge does not agree with my evaluation of the Salmon River water flows, and responds with the following:





Troy, Your article "What has happened to our River?" in the Spring issue of Lake Ontario Outdoors is rife with misinformation, which I would like to clarify. Much of this you already know from frequent discussions with Fran Verdoliva, Steve Murphy from Orion Power and me.

First of all, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license to the utility followed a Settlement Agreement that resulted from a long period of negotiations between the utility (Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation at the time), DEC, US Fish and Wildlife Service, American Rivers, and others. Each group was trying to get as much from the river for their interest as possible. DEC's interest included fishing and restoring as many natural process functions in the river as possible, such as natural reproduction by fall spawning salmonids. We got nearly everything we wanted and all our core issues were addressed.

Included in the settlement agreement was the establishment of the Flow Management Advisory Team, comprised of seventeen members: DEC, the utility (now Orion Power), US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, American Whitewater Affiliation, New York Rivers United, Trout Unlimited, Adirondack Mountain Club, Oswego County River Guides, Oswego County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, Oswego County Legislators, Mayor of the Village of Pulaski, County Legislator from the Town of Albion, Supervisor from the Town of Redfield, and the Pulaski/Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce Fishery Committee (now Corridor Committee). Those in bold print are local interest groups, including the Oswego County River Guides of which you are a member. The Trout Unlimited member is from the local Tug Hill Chapter. Therefore, eight out of seventeen members are from local interest groups!

You also stated, "We see 285 to 300 cfs more than we ever did." I hope so since these flows were rare, indeed, prior to the license. The flows were usually leakage (estimated to be 15 cfs) or 750 cfs or more. The seasonal base flows are designed to maintain the biological functions of the river. The 285 cfs winter base flow is designed to protect trout and salmon eggs incubating naturally in the river's gravel. The tremendous amount of natural reproduction by Chinook salmon is testimony to the success of these flows. We used to see the river drop from high flows to leakage, often during the days when guides had clients, leaving them and their boats stranded. Winter weekend guided trips were usually impossible for boat guides since the peaking power production mode at the time didn't demand electricity production on those days. Leakage flows produced exactly the situation you described, "Nobody likes to fish in ankle deep clear water. The fish are packed into small areas and are spooky and seldom bite." That is never the situation with any of the base flows. Instead, most of the riverbed is wetted, there is an active guide boat fishery all winter, certainly not in "ankle deep water".

You also stated that the water flows caused poor returns of winter fish (steelhead, I assume). Declines in the steelhead run in the Salmon River were obvious before base flows were initiated. An article in the Post Standard on 4/25/96 discussed the subject at length. Adult returns to the Salmon River Hatchery of steelhead released from there were at their lowest that year. Base flows commenced the following November. If anything, these base flows benefit young steelhead traveling down to the lake, since flows do not drop precipitously, as they did prior, and temperatures do not experience rapid increases at this time.

We are concerned about the Salmon River steelhead run and made a major commitment of personnel time and funds to try to determine the stocking method, which maximizes both survival and returning adults. However, we have no evidence that the base flows are responsible for the decline in the steelhead fishery.

Poor returns of steelhead have been experienced by virtually all New York tributaries to Lake Ontario and by many on the Canadian side as well. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources' 1999 Annual Report of the Lake Ontario Management Unit-Lake Ontario Fish Communities and Fisheries reports that the Ganaraska River rainbow run, which has been monitored at a fishway frequently since 1974, has seen the size of the run decline since 1991. Certainly, Salmon River flows have no effect of the Ganaraska or other tributaries to Lake Ontario. We saw changes in survival of many trout and salmon species on the New York side during this time period as well, but cannot substantiate that the Salmon River flows are the cause. Broad changes in the Lake's ecology are more likely candidates.

The base flows have been one of the most positive influences on the river's ecology in the past eighty years. Production of aquatic insects, necessary for sustaining the increased fish community, has increased. Natural reproduction of Chinook salmon is occurring now in the river in large amounts. River flows allow fish to migrate upstream when they want, not just when electricity is in demand. Many of the river's biological functions have been restored.

Les Wedge
Regional Fisheries Manager





As you know I am a major supporter of most of the DEC's programs. On this issue, my position stands. This license was shoved down the throat of the river guides and the individual anglers. Unless my memory is fading the Oswego County River guides were told, as I quoted in my article, to leave this to us (the DEC). Don't get involved, was Cliff Creech's exact words. We can go round and round on this, but as you stated in your letter, "We got nearly everything we wanted". Who are we? The fisherman did not.

How About This.
I finally found out where this 285, 300 cfs water flow came from. The whitewater enthusiasts (all 100 of them), looked at some computer model and decided that if they could shave 15 cfs off of the base flows, originally 300 and 350 cfs, they could miraculously gain two more white water releases in the summer. Imagine that, taking precious water from the system so a few dozen kayakers can float the river.

Where Are They Now?
It is safe to say that our four year drought is temporarily over. With all of the high water this spring, where are the canoer's and kayakers? In the last ninety days we have had water in excess of 1000 cfs approximately 75% of those days. Great Whitewater! A kayaker's dream flow. So where are all the white water enthusiasts? Why aren't they bringing in all of this revenue to the economy we hear so much about? I was on the river most everyday in March, April, and early May. I was seeing a dozen or so kayakers at best, and this was usually just on weekends. (This could be another good article). I am not against multiple user groups; I am not against the DEC's interests. I am just reporting facts as I see them.








New York Rivers United
Bruce Carpenter, Executive Director
199 West Dominick Street, Liberty Plaza
Rome NY 13440
Phone: 315.339.2097
Fax: 315.339.6028


NYSDEC Region 7
Kenneth Lynch
615 Erie Boulevard West
Syracuse, NY 13204

Jeff Sama
New York Department of
Environmental Conservation
50 Wolf Road
Albany, NY 12233-1750
Tel: (518) 457-2224
Fax: (518) 457-5965

American Rivers
1025 Vermont Avenue, NW,
Suite 720,
Washington, D.C. 20005
Phone: (202) 347-7550
Fax: (202) 347-9240

Trout Ulimited
1500 Wilson Boulevard; Suite 310
Arlington, VA 22209-2404
Phone: (703) 522-0200
Fax: (703) 284-9400

Issac Walton League
Matt Webber
President, New York Division
3826 Lane Road
Cazenovia, NY 13035

American Whitewater Affiliation
1430 Fenwick Lane,
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Phone: (301) 589-9453




Troy Creasy is editor of Lake Ontario Outdoors magazine and operates High Adventure Sportfishing as a professional charter captain and river guide on Lake Ontario and its Owsego County tributaries.







Content © Troy Creasy Enterprises, Inc.
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