Agencies Call for Appeal
by Eric Barker
Agencies say order to spill water over dams will harm chinook
The federal agencies in charge of salmon recovery have advised the Justice Department to appeal a judge's order that water be spilled over five Snake and Columbia river dams this summer.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration want federal attorneys to challenge Friday's decision by district court Judge James Redden that they say will harm listed fall chinook.
"We believe that in low water years the best option for fish is to transport as many as we can," said Brian Gorman, spokesman for NOAA Fisheries at Seattle. "We believe it is very risky to allow fish to go through the spillways in low water years."
Gorman said Justice Department attorneys filed documents Monday that will allow the government to appeal Redden's order to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. If an appeal is filed, Gorman said it likely would happen later this week and the government would ask for a stay of the spill order until the case is decided.
Friday, Redden ordered water to be spilled at the four lower Snake River dams and McNary Dam on the Columbia River instead of being diverted through electricity-producing turbines. The spill will begin Monday and last through August, a period when hot weather can drive up demand for power.
Ed Mosey, a BPA spokesman, said the order could cost ratepayers $67 million. The estimate was reached by calculating the amount of power the agency will not be able to produce at the dams and the possibility the agency may need to purchase power during periods of high demand.
"Sometimes we have power that we can sell at night but during the day we have to purchase power, so it's a power cost to the Northwest," he said. (bluefish recommends Costs & Revenues of Lower Snake River Dams)
Most Idaho and eastern Washington residents purchase power from Idaho Power or Avista, neither of which use power produced at the federal dams. But many rural residents purchase power from cooperatives, such as Idaho Power and Light and Clearwater Power that are BPA customers. According to BPA estimates, those customers could see their rates rise by about 5 percent.
Redden denied a request by salmon groups and Indian tribes to draw down Lower Granite Reservoir 10 feet and to release more water in southern Idaho from the Snake River.
The spill order follows Redden's May 26 ruling that labeled the federal government's 2004 biological opinion on the Snake and Columbia river hydropower system arbitrary and capricious.
Redden encouraged the federal agencies, states, tribes and the plaintiffs to meet and work on a new salmon-recovery plan. But he did not order such talks, or tell the government how the biological opinion could be fixed.
Until he does, Gorman said the government can't appeal that portion of the case, as some members of Congress, including Republican Reps. C.L. (Butch) Otter of Idaho and Cathy McMorris of Washington, have urged the Justice Department to do.
"As things stand right now he has basically told us the (biological opinion) is flawed but has not issued an order we can appeal so that will have to come later," Gorman said.
Redden did set a Sept. 7 meeting between the litigants, known as a status conference, to talk about how to proceed.
At that conference, those involved in the case will discuss if the biological opinion should be returned to the agencies for work or withdrawn all together, and what should guide river management and salmon in the meantime. Redden has hinted he would like to see salmon-friendly practices outlined in the government's 2000 biological opinion adopted as an interim plan.
Witt Anderson, fish program manager for the corps at Portland, said Redden's spill order means about two-thirds of juvenile fall chinook will migrate to the ocean by following the flows of the Snake and Columbia rivers. The other third will continue to be trapped at the dams and transported to the Columbia River estuary on barges. The corps had planned to trap and transport as many of the young fish as it could this summer.
Anderson said officials from the corps are meeting with the plaintiffs in the case to work out the details of spill operations and figure out how to meet the judge's order while also conducting tests on removable spillway weirs at Lower Granite and Ice Harbor dams on the Snake River.
Although no formal talks similar to the ones Redden suggested are under way, Anderson said the topic will come up at a meeting with tribes that was scheduled long before Redden's order.
"We are going to be talking about that more later this week but nothing has really been started," Anderson said.
Gorman said his agency doesn't have any immediate plans to begin talks with the plaintiffs.
"I think we are going to have to wait a little while to see what happens," he said.
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