Appellate Court Orders More Water
by Pete Danko
More water will flow over several federally operated Northwest dams beginning Tuesday, a day after conservationists and the state of Oregon won a court victory in the long-running battle over the plight of salmon and steelhead in the region.
A panel of judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court order to protect juvenile fish migrating downstream on the Columbia and Snake rivers by increasing spill at eight dams.
This fight has been going on since 2000, when the National Wildlife Federation challenged the National Marine Fisheries Service and other federal agencies on their plan to avoid jeopardizing wild salmonid populations threatened by the dams' operation.
"(This) decision is just the most recent of many court orders that try to ensure federal river-management agencies in the Columbia Basin protect and restore wild salmon," Tom France, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement Monday. "All these decisions have been clear -- the status quo isn't working and the fish deserve better. The time is now for federal agencies to follow the law."
Fish die passing through turbines as they head downriver in the spring. Various bypass mechanisms are employed. But as the court said in its ruling Monday, "The wild salmonid population has decreased significantly in recent years," and 13 species are now endangered or threatened.
Under the order by U.S. District Judge Michael Simon, the Army Corps of Engineers is to increase water spilled over the dams to a level that goes right up to the limit allowed by dissolved-gas limitations.
The three-judge panel agreed that, contrary to the appeal by the federal agencies, Simon's order was well founded.
The "evidence is not of ‘potential' or ‘hypothesized" survival benefits," the court found. "(I)t includes significant evidence from decades of studies showing that (higher) spill volumes ... will lead to higher survival rates for outmigrating salmonids."
More water over the dams instead of through the turbines will cost power, and power equals money. That's an issue for the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the output from the federally operated dams and is already in a big financial pinch.
"This decision creates a new multimillion dollar obligation for the region's ratepayers..." BPA said in a statement late Monday. "We at BPA are committed to delivering on our vast public responsibilities through a commercially successful business. We are analyzing the full financial impacts of this court decision and we will make more information available in the coming weeks."
BPA enacted a 5.4 percent rate increase last fall for the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years. It included a "spill surcharge" of about 2 percent to pay for the cost of the new requirements, which will run from April to mid-June.
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