Digging a Little Deeper into Madison Flow Issues…

by Mark McGlothlin on July 8, 2013

in Inquiring Minds Want to Know

There’s been a fair amount of discussion over the past several months about flows regulation on the Madison River.

Actually, that’s not quite true.

Some folks, folks who make their living being on the water most every day, have been talking about serious issues with Madison River flow management for years, at least since the Hebgen Dam outflow issues arose back in August, 2008.

Last week Richard Lessner, ED of the Madison River Foundation (a most worthy organization and one that we continue to very strongly support) penned a newsletter dedicated to flow issues on the Madison. It would be a colossal understatement to offer that the newsletter sparked ‘a bit of discussion’ among Madison faithful.

One of the most thoughtful and complete responses to RL’s commentary (far better than my own puny effort) was published yesterday on the Madison River Fishing Company’s report page. Folks who care about the Madison and its management will want to read this in its entirety, particularly the final few paragraphs.

Late last week a newsletter penned by Richard Lessner of the Madison River Foundation started circulating in response to questions and concerns he’s been fielding about the current state of the Madison…flows and temperatures specifically. I disagree with a lot of what’s contained in that newsletter and would like to…for want of a better word…rebut what Richard said in it.

This is not meant to be a personal attack on Richard or a condemnation of the Foundation itself. It is meant to give a different perspective and set the record straight on a few things that Richard got wrong. You can follow the URL links I’ll provide to check my facts if you’d like. I’ll try and follow the flow of the newsletter and address the things I have issues with in the order they appear there. Here we go…

“PPL operates under strict requirements in its federal license that does not allow it to kill fish.”

This is not strictly true…The language in the license speaks of temperature triggers only on the LOWER Madison to protect the fishery. Article 413 of the FERC license has the pertinent information. You can find that here.

Basing pulse flow protocols on a certain “trigger” temperature only accounts for part of the story. Trout don’t just all of a sudden start dying when the water temps reach 77 degrees or whatever they decide their number may be. Dissolved oxygen (which can vary based on many different factors…such as flow rate), external stresses (such as catch and release angling), available food, etc. can all attribute to mortality at much lower water temps. All this however is of little use here as they only have a pulse flow protocol in place for the LOWER MADISON (downstream from Ennis Lake). No such protections are in place for the upper river (the part that constitutes the #1 or #2 most used section of river in the state).

“When water temperatures approach potentially lethal ranges, typically above 78F for rainbow trout…”

What about brown trout? What about whitefish (you might not like em but big trout eat em)? What about sculpins and all the myriad invertebrates that trout eat?

“PPL pulses water out of Hebgen Lake to cool Ennis Lake and, consequently, the lower river below Bear Trap.”

No they don’t….they raise the flow out of Hebgen to keep Ennis Lake full enough (not cool enough) to pulse the lower.

Pulse: b. Any of a series of intermittent occurrences characterized by a brief sudden change in a quantity.

“Brief, sudden change”…that means a raising and lowering of river flow in a short span of time (a few hours as in the case of lower river pulses). The differences in flow protocols between the upper and lower Madison are shown clearly in the USGS real-time stream flow hydrographs which you can find here for the upper and here for the lower.

“The upper river between Quake Lake and Ennis is much less susceptible to dangerous warming than the lower river.”

Yes, Richard is mostly correct here…were we operating under anything approaching normal circumstances. PP&L continues work on Hebgen Dam which necessitates using the dam overflow structure to control the flow which draws water off the top of the reservoir (instead of 30 feet beneath the surface as is the case when the dam was functioning). The average water temp coming into the upper Madison is 3-5 degrees warmer to begin with than it “normally’ is. Since the dam failure and repair process began the upper river has actually been, on many days, experiencing warmer water temps at the Kirby gauge than downstream at Varney.

“Higher water temperatures in the upper river may slow fishing during the middle part of the day, but they do not pose a lethal threat to the fish.”

Wrong again…virtually every guide I know including myself has seen dead fish on a daily basis out there for almost a week now. Yes, this is due in part to stress from catch and release fishing (when coupled with the high water temps). It is NOT a normal occurrence to see dead fish on a daily basis on this river when “The river is doing just fine.”

“PPL does take into consideration such recreational use as angling but its priority is to protect the fish.”

Its priority, actually, is to protect its investors and its capacity to generate electricity. This is clearly illustrated in the license language.

“But under its federal guidelines PPL cannot increase (or decrease) flows more than 10 percent a day. This limit is in consideration of recreational activities on the river, including fishing.”

This is correct but it is also one of the license requirements a lot of us have been arguing for years needs to be changed. There is no reason we couldn’t do away with that rule for the months of March, April, May and even June. It is one of the rules that PP&L runs up against when they are making their inflow calculations in the fall. They can’t raise it more than 10% per day so they need to make sure they have enough room in the reservoir to accommodate enough runoff that they don’t have to.

“In response to low flows and higher temperatures PPL began pulsing water out of Hebgen this week.”

No, they didn’t…they began pulsing the lower river so they had to raise the upper to keep enough water in Ennis lake to do so.

“As to flows, this year’s drought conditions (see map above) have caused lower than average river flows across much of the region.”

Yes, and we all knew that we were seeing drought conditions as early as February in this part of the state. More on this later but you can find the data here.

Look in the Water Year 2013 .pdfs for continuing updates throughout the year.

“PPL has been criticized for keeping flows too high over the winter. At FWPs suggestion, PPL maintains fairly constant flows from November through March in order to protect spawning habitat in the main stem of the Madison. Steady flows around 1,000 cfs are deemed important for this purpose.”

Yes, you can see from article 403, section 4 of the FERC license, the first part of Richard’s statement is (sort of) true. They actually do it because they are mandated to in the license not because FWP suggests it but…I’m being nitpicky. The last sentence however is not…nowhere in there does it say anything about 1000 cfs (or greater as it was operated at 1100-1200 cfs for most of this winter). Trout don’t necessarily need 1000 cfs to spawn successfully….only STABLE FLOWS to protect the eggs until they hatch. The fish will find areas to spawn whether the flow is 500, 1000 or 5000 cfs.

“In looking at long-range weather, snow and moisture forecasts last fall, PPL deemed such flows justifiable. The forecasts turned out to be less than accurate, predicted average spring snows did not appear, and water levels are low.”

Less than accurate forecasts?!? In the Rocky Mountains?? Six months in advance?? NO!! Once again, you can take a look at the NRCS water data for MT and not only was southwest, MT the driest part of the state this past winter it started out so in January and February and continued to decline through the first two weeks in May. This is possibly THE most important part of our argument. PP&L stubbornly refuses to utilize real-time, on the ground weather and water data when they are calculating their winter and spring time flow regime. You can clearly see here…that despite the persistently dry condition in the Madison drainage, they didn’t really react (with lowered flows out of Hebgen) until mid-May and early June (when it was WAY too late). They actually ran it at almost 1000 cfs out of Hebgen (almost 700 cfs higher than during the hottest stretch of weather we had here last week) until late April. The importance of this and the timing CANNOT be overstated. They had plenty of water in the lake to have it full by April or May had they reacted sooner to the drought conditions. People will talk about hindsight and such…B.S.! The data showing drought conditions here existed in January! The river paid hard for this over the past several weeks and could pay hard again later this summer.

“Under its federal license, PPL is required to fill Hebgen by June 30. It’s almost there. The lake today is less than a foot from full pool.”

Yes, less than a foot from full…the foot that actually contains the most acre feet of any as they fill it. The sides of the reservoir are not straight up and down…the closer it gets to full the more water it takes per inch to continue filling it. They MIGHT get it full if they get lucky and it keeps raining but only at the expense of seriously low flows and high water temps on the upper river.

“A full Hebgen provides a reserve of water for those pulse flows mentioned above should July, August and September prove unusually warm. Retaining the highest possible level of water in the lake also facilitates completion of repair work on the dam. Lake levels in the fall determine how long into the season construction can continue. PPL aims to complete work on the dam in 2014, something everybody desires.”

Hey…something we agree on! It’s just that PP&L should have had it full months ago before it got hot!

“The fisheries biologists at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks also closely monitor river temperatures and flows. FWP has established and published guidelines on temperatures and river closures for cold water fisheries. Here is the link to these guidelines: Drought Fishing Closure Policy.”

Yep, great…so the only policy in place to mitigate stress on fish in the upper is closure. They’d actually rather close it to fishing than put more water into it to cool it off.

“It would be nice, of course, if nature were entirely predictable. It’s not. Weather, climate, snowfall, rain, drought — all change from year to year. Some years are wetter than others; some are drier. Predicting months in advance how much water will be available is tricky.”

No shit…that’s why they should factor in real-time data!

“Moreover, even in “normal” years the Madison naturally has a steep daily thermograph. In summer the river has a very steep temperature curve, rising sharply in the middle of the day and falling overnight. This is entirely natural.”

Yep, the only unnatural parts are the heat sink reservoirs and the broken dam.

“Longtime Madison anglers know it’s best to fish early, take the afternoon off, and wait on the river to start cooling toward evening. Those who insist on fishing “banker’s hours” should accept this daily temperature spike as a reality and adjust expectations accordingly. Of course, even this reality is subject to exceptions. Trout may continue to feed actively even when water temperatures increase above the ideal if there is abundant food present, such as grasshoppers in late summer.”

And apparently some of us need an education on how and when to fish the Madison…and oh, don’t forget to “adjust expectations…”

“Warm summer temperatures and lower flows are normal. These conditions are even more pronounced in uncontrolled rivers that do not support dams and reservoirs.”

We LOVE dams and reservoirs!! Yay!!

“The Madison is not in crisis. It is a healthy, robust river and a superb fishery. The river is doing just fine; it’s human expectations that need adjustment.”

Yes, the Madison will weather the current crisis that some folks would rather keep their heads in the sand about. Water will continue to flow, fish will continue to eat and (sometimes) flourish here…this, somehow, misses the point. One of the greatest natural resources we have in this state, one that not only generates countless hours of enjoyment for thousands of people (anglers and non) but millions of dollars in state revenue from tourism dollars is under the management and control of a for-profit power company. Are they the devil incarnate? No, of course not…but they absolutely could choose to do things in a way that would benefit the people who use and love this river….possibly even over their own corporate concerns.

That last sentence I quoted actually strikes me as a bit contradictory. So, there’s no problem…we just need to adjust our expectations and everything is just fine…Hmmm…for some reason that just doesn’t sit very well. All the Bengal Tigers are dying! …well, you just need to adjust your expectations that there will be fewer of them and it’ll be fine. A bit tangential I know but…

The license requirements that I’d like to see revisited are the 10% per day maximum flow change. I think this could be done away with, as previously stated during the months of Feb, March, April, May and possibly even June. Also the 3500 cfs max flow over Quake. This is to minimize erosion of the earthen dam. Quake is naturally eroding anyway…..it is a lake created through natural causes. Why are we working so hard to keep it as it is? So we speed up the erosion of the dam and lowering of the lake level by a decade or two (if that, I’m making up those numbers to illustrate a point). The years PP&L would need to run it higher than 3500 would be few and far between anyway if they paid attention and utilized real-time data.

This is from article 403, section 4 of the FERC license… “…maintain the elevation of Hebgen Reservoir between 6,530.26 and 6,534.87 feet (normal full pool elevation) from June 20 through October 1.” Take a look at those elevation numbers…..as per the license that RANGE is considered “normal full pool elevation”. There is FOUR FEET of lake elevation within this parameter that P&LL could use to keep more flow in the river! Think about that….yet on most years they end up with closer to 6534 feet than they do the smaller number. In fact there is 6534.5 feet in there RIGHT NOW…yet they ran it at almost minimum flows while the water temp climbed to 74 degrees! Now tell me again how they are doing such a great job managing this river. SO…even after the dam repairs are finished (as certainly was the case before it broke) PP&L can and will still run the upper river to try and maintain a full reservoir (as long as the lower stays cool enough they don’t have to pulse it). Then, come late Sept or early Oct they jack the flow (most years this will end up being higher all winter than during the hottest part of the summer) to draw the lake level down again. I’m not making this up. They are operating within the constraints of their licensing agreement…legally not doing anything wrong. We are questioning the rules themselves not PP&Ls compliance to them.

The information is there. The language in the license is clear. There is leeway for PP&L even as it is written. They CHOOSE to operate as they do in many cases. This is the gist of our (my) argument. Draw your own conclusions.

Mike Lum

MRFC

Ennis, MT

Tags: Inquiring Minds Want to Know