Judge Orders More Water Spilled for Columbia, Snake River Salmon

PORTLAND, Oregon, June 14, 2005 (ENS) – Federal dam operators must spill more water over five Snake and Columbia River dams in order to help Pacific salmon migrate to the ocean, a federal judge ruled on Friday.

U.S. District Court Judge James Redden said the increased summer spill "is needed to avoid irreparable harm" to the region’s endangered and threatened salmon.

The ruling affects the Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor Dams on the Snake River, and the McNary Dam on the Columbia River.

The spills will begin this month and continue through the end of August.

Federal officials said they may appeal the ruling to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.


The Lower Granite Dam, one of four dams blocking migrating salmon on the Snake River. (Photo by Doug Thiele courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
"We are extremely concerned that the outcome provides no guarantee for the improvement of salmon stocks, and it could make things worse, at an enormous cost to the region," said officials from the four action agencies – the Bonneville Power Administration, NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - in a joint statement.

The ruling blocks the Bush administration from implementing a plan to cut summer spill, a practice officials contend is costly and of limited help to the fish.

Spilling water over the dams helps young salon migrate to the ocean – and cools river water temperatures – but it cuts the output of hydroelectric facilities. Utility executives have lobbied long and hard against the practice.

Officials from the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal energy wholesaler in charge of the dams, estimate the additional spill will cost ratepayers some $67 million and say it will provide little benefit to endangered and threatened salmon.

Judge Redden said the agencies had failed to show how they could safeguard the fish from the negative impacts of cutting summer spill.

The determinations by the federal government that the proposed reductions in summer spill "will not likely jeopardize listed species are arbitrary and capricious and violate the Endangered Species Act," Redden wrote in his ruling.


This salmon has made it to the Ice Harbor dam on the Snake River. (Photo courtesy Albion College)
The Coalition for Smart Salmon Recovery, a partnership of farmers, utility customers and public service providers, said Redding’s decision to block the Bush administration’s summer spill plan could cause the salmon more harm than good.

The coalition contends forecasts for low flows on both rivers this summer illustrates that the Bush plan to offset summer spill cuts with mitigation efforts – in particular the barging of young fish around the dams – is a better approach.

"This decision is completely irresponsible," said Shauna McReynolds, spokesman for the coalition. "It ignores science, it puts the courts in the position of running the hydropower system and it will expose salmon to very dangerous conditions."

The ruling is a victory for Native American tribes, environmentalists and fishing interests, but Redden did not give the plaintiffs all they had requested.

The judge denied a request by the salmon advocates to boost the speed of the rivers’ water flow by 10 percent – a move proponents say would cool water temperatures and benefit salmon.

Redden said the concept that the measure is needed "requires further study and consultation."

Friday’s ruling is the second major defeat in recent weeks for the Bush administration’s overall strategy for balancing the operations of the Columbia River hydroelectric system with the federal government’s responsibility to protect and restore imperiled salmon.


Fish ladder at the Ice Harbor Dam. Fish get around the dam by using this device. (Photo courtesy Cindy Wambeam)
Last month Redden ruled that the federal government’s $6 billion salmon plan violates the Endangered Species Act and must be rewritten – it was the second time in two years he found the federal salmon plan in violation of the law.

Thirteen different salmon and steelhead populations listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act live in waters impacted by the 14 federal dams on the Columbia River Basin.

The Bush plan, released in late November, predicted technological measures – in particular fish slides – would help migrating salmon.

It concluded such measures would allow continued operation of the hydroelectric system without jeopardizing the continued existence of the listed salmon.

In last month’s ruling, Redden rejected that finding.

Salmon advocates hope to use the momentum from both rulings to generate more support for removing the four dams on the lower Snake River.

Many salmon experts say that breaching those dams would greatly aid the long-term recovery and survival of some of the endangered populations, but the Bush administration has been steadfast in its opposition to breaching any dams within the Columbia and Snake River Basin.

"The benefits they provide are limited, and can be replaced through other means," said Rob Masonis of American Rivers. "But there is no replacement for 140 miles of free-flowing river when it comes to wild salmon recovery and protecting salmon-dependent economies."