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Libby Dam high flows reach flood stage
Residents living along the river getting very nervous at the high water
June 12, 2006

Story by KLCB News, Libby

Saturday the Corps of Engineers said Lake Koocanusa would be within 6 inches of full pool by June 14th. Normally that would be welcome news.

Currently, however, the in-flow to the lake is almost 55,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), with an outflow into the Kootenai River of 38,400 cfs; 14,000 cfs of which is going over the spillway. That is making dam operators more than a little uneasy.

The Corps is keeping their fingers crossed that we get no warm weather, and no more rain hoping that by the 17th in-flow will drop to 35, 000 CFS, and by the 19th to 27,000 CFS.

That could be a lot of wishful thinking.

It would take considerably higher flows to flood Libby as in the 1950s, 1961 and 1974. Those flows were between 64,000 cfs, and the record high flow of 121,000 cfs in the early 1900s. The Libby Dam itself is in no danger. It is capable of discharging a total of 64,000 cfs.

But residents living along the river are concerned. Concerned that any warming trend, or more rain, will put their property in further danger. And they are upset.

The Corps' plan is to hold the flow at 38,400 cfs hoping for an equalization of in-flow and out-flow by Wednesday, and continue spilling into the weekend, bringing the lake level down two feet.

Residents along the river want to know how we got into this situation. According to Cindy Henriksen, Chief, Reservoir Control Center, in Seattle, it is the result of operations since December. May weather caused heavy in-flow of 77,000 cfs. She blamed the Vari-Q operating guidelines.

But the residents are not buying that.

County Commissioner Rita Windom thinks Vari-Q needs to be revisited. "Perhaps Vari-Q is not the answer", she said.

As it stands, Vari-Q will create a margin of risk every year, and that is unacceptable to those along the river.

Operations Manager for the Libby Project, Mick Shea, said, "We are getting that there is not a lot of confidence in this flood control regime." And Shea thinks there needs to be an internal Corps of Engineers review.

The discussion danced around the issue of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service Sturgeon mitigation program and its bearing on the situation. The Corps was hanging the problem totally on the weather, early snowmelt followed by heavy rains.

Asked if the Corps is violating Federal Water Quality Standards, Hendriksen said "No". While she openly admits that the Corps is exceeding the gasification limits below the dam, she said, "Since this is a flood control operation, an act of nature, it is not a violation."

But it is the Corps, not nature, that is creating the flood conditions due to the Corps operation of Libby Dam, as the residents see it.

The Corps Hendriksen said, "This is an average water year and a typical Vari-Q year. No two water years are alike. We do work on forecasts. You can underforecast; you can overforecast. Vari-Q is as flexible as it can be. This is an act of nature," she said.

It is really the point at which Mother Nature and pseudo-science collide. To find resolution will most likely take bringing suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Corps of Engineers. Until then, the residents along the Kootenai River downstream from Libby Dam are not buying the situation as an Act of God, but an act of the Corps.

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