Many local, State, and Federal agencies have concerns over the declining population of white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) in the Kootenai River and the possible effects of the closure and subsequent operation of Libby Dam in 1972. In 1994, the Kootenai River white sturgeon was listed as an Endangered Species. A year-long field study was conducted in cooperation with the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho along a 21.7-kilometer reach of the Kootenai River including the white sturgeon spawning reach near Bonners Ferry, Idaho, approximately 111 to 129 kilometers below Libby Dam. During the field study, data were collected in order to map the channel substrate in the white sturgeon spawning reach. These data include seismic subbottom profiles at 18 cross sections of the river and sediment cores taken at or near the seismic cross sections. The effect that Libby Dam has on the Kootenai River white sturgeon spawning substrate was analyzed in terms of changes in suspended-sediment transport, aggradation and degradation of channel bed, and changes in the particle size of bed material with depth below the riverbed.
The annual suspended-sediment load leaving the Kootenai River white sturgeon spawning reach decreased dramatically after the closure of Libby Dam in 1972: mean annual pre-Libby Dam load during 1966–71 was 1,743,900 metric tons, and the dam-era load during 1973–83 was 287,500 metric tons. The amount of sand-size particles in three suspended-sediment samples collected at Copeland, Idaho, 159 kilometers below Libby Dam, during spring and early summer high flows after the closure of Libby Dam is less than in four samples collected during the pre-Libby Dam era. The supply of sand to the spawning reach is currently less due to the reduction of high flows and a loss of 70 percent of the basin after the closure of Libby Dam. The river's reduced capacity to transport sand out of the spawning reach is compensated to an unknown extent by a reduced load of sand entering the spawning reach.
Since the closure of Libby Dam, the most notable change in channel geometry at the Copeland streamflow gaging station was the initiation of cyclical aggradation and degradation of the riverbed in the center of the channel. The aggradation and degradation of the riverbed are reflected in a twofold increase, from 1.3 to 2.5 meters, in the fluctuation of the minimum riverbed elevation, which suggests that during the Libby Dam era, parts of the riverbed in the spawning reach may have aggraded or degraded by as much as 2.5 meters.
Before the closure of Libby Dam, there was a greater propensity for aggradation and degradation of sand over the discontinuous gravel and cobble layers in the buried gravelcobble reach at Bonners Ferry. The gravel and cobble in this reach, 111.3 to 115.9 kilometers below Libby Dam, are buried by sand. Unregulated spring snowmelt-runoff flows flushed part of the sand layer and exposed some of the buried gravel-cobble layer because streamflow velocities were higher at that time. Unregulated autumn-winter base flows gradually deposited silt and sand and reestablished a sand layer, burying the gravel-cobble layer. This cyclical process of aggradation and degradation of the riverbed sediment is reflected in the alternating gravel-cobble layers and sand layers found in sediment core K18-TH taken as part of this project.
White sturgeon spawning substrate in the Kootenai River meander reach is currently composed of alluvial sand that forms sand dunes and of minor amounts of lacustrine clay and silt that generally are found in the river's thalweg. The present substrate composition in the meander reach is considered similar to that which existed prior to closure of Libby Dam, with one possible exception. Prior to closure of Libby Dam, minor amounts of gravel and cobble may have been exposed on the riverbed in the spawning reach just below the mouth of Myrtle Creek 230 kilometers below Libby Dam. The substrate composition near Shorty Island, 234 kilometers below Libby Dam, a notable white sturgeon spawning reach, is predominantly sand and is similar to that which existed prior to closure of Libby Dam.