Groups ask Judge to Maintain
by Colin Sullivan
Environmental groups and Pacific Northwest fishermen are urging a federal judge in Portland, Ore., to intervene to aide migrating salmon if the Obama administration puts into motion a proposal to halt water spilling over dams in the Columbia River Basin.
In documents filed this week, Earthjustice, the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association and others asked U.S. District Court Judge James Redden to modify a draft plan from the National Marine Fisheries Service that seeks to curtail water spilling at eight dams in the Columbia and Snake rivers, if it goes forward.
The groups allege that NMFS has developed the plan to benefit the federal Bonneville Power Administration, which sells electricity generated by the eight dams. The water spills, they argue, have been in place since 2006 and helped salmon recover to the highest in-river survival rates since the dams were built.
"It's really too bad ... that the administration is trying to roll back court-ordered salmon protections ... to protect the federal hydro system and make more money," said Todd True, an attorney at Earthjustice. "While the proposal is presented as a way to help steelhead survival, that rhetoric simply doesn't match the facts."
True argues that spilling helps all 13 salmon species in the basin listed under the Endangered Species Act, including sockeye, chinook and steelhead. He says the state of Oregon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others disagree with the science behind the NMFS plan, which essentially argues that in a low-flow year, barging fish past the dams is a more effective way to ensure survival of steelhead and chinook.
The filing with Redden is a small piece of ongoing litigation over a May 2008 biological opinion that means to govern listed fish in the basin. Redden has for years rejected attempts by the federal government to advance a bi-op and an associated management plan, preferring instead to order the water spills from the bench.
But NMFS insists its motivation is to protect fish, not aid BPA or the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dams. A regional spokesman at the agency in Seattle acknowledged that sockeye would not benefit from the barging plan in a low-flow year, but he argued the action is good for steelhead and chinook.
"In May, there aren't a lot of sockeye in the river," said NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman. "We have very strong evidence that transporting steelhead and chinook actually results in more fish surviving than if they were spilled."
True counters by citing data produced by the Fish Passage Center that show sockeye did much better in 2007, after the spill was implemented, than in 2005. He adds that all species did better in 2007 than they did in 2005.
The next wrinkle in this legal fight, which has been ongoing since 2000, will likely emerge tomorrow when a group called the Independent Scientific Advisory Board (ISAB) issues a recommendation on NMFS's plan. The agency asked the board, which is composed of respected scientists in the region, to assess its draft before a May 1 deadline for releasing an adaptive management proposal under the May 2008 bi-op.
True believes the board will side with spilling as the best method to help the fish, as it has in the past. Gorman, describing ISAB as having "a lot of credibility," would not say if NMFS officials would follow the board's recommendation to the letter.
Gorman added that his agency expects 2010 to be the third-lowest water year in the past half-century, with flows at the Lower Granite Dam -- the uppermost of the 4 hydroelectric dams on the Snake River -- to be about 56 percent of normal.
A call to the FWS office in Portland had not been returned at press time.
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