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Fish Spills Backed by Appeals Court

by Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer
The Columbian, August 14, 2004

The Army Corps of Engineers must continue releasing water at Columbia and Snake River dams this summer to help young salmon migrate downstream, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.

In a setback for the Bush administration, the court refused an Aug. 3 emergency request from the Bonneville Power Administration to stay a July order from U.S. District Judge James Redden that required the corps to continue releasing water at the dams through the month of August.

Because the merits of the case won't be argued until fall, Friday's ruling effectively resolves the contentious issue for this year.

BPA Administrator Steve Wright said even before the ruling was announced that he didn't expect it to resolve the issue in future years. "The problem is, it's a controversial issue on both sides," he said Friday.

In early July, the National Marine Fisheries Service approved a controversial plan by the corps and the BPA to reduce the amount of water spilled for juvenile salmon in July and August by 39 percent.

The BPA said the reduction in spill would enable it to generate an additional $20 million to $31 million in revenue this year, thereby trimming wholesale electric rates.

Under the proposal, spills would have been shut off for all of August at Bonneville and The Dalles dams, and for the last five days of August at Ice Harbor and John Day dams.

Originally, federal dam managers wanted to scale back spills by 55 percent.

Federal biologists said the reduced spills would affect only one endangered salmon population directly, Snake River fall chinook.

Environmental groups and state and tribal fish biologists argued that spills at dams are the most consistently successful measures the government has for improving survival of threatened and endangered salmon.

Fish biologists also predicted that thousands of salmon not yet protected under the Endangered Species Act would perish as a result of reducing summertime spills.

On July 28, Judge Redden agreed, ruling that the region's long-term environmental health was more important than the short-term economic benefits of increased electricity production this summer.

Redden said the Bush administration had failed to implement the court-mandated Federal Salmon Plan or to meet juvenile salmon survival goals for the past three years.

"(G)iven that we are working from a deficit situation, we should not be cutting back on an effective mitigation tool," he wrote.

Todd True, an attorney for the not-for-profit law firm Earthjustice, hailed the ruling.

"By upholding Judge Redden's decision, the 9th Circuit is affirming what we've know all along: Gambling the future of wild salmon to save a few cents a month on our electric bills is not a tradeoff people in the Northwest want to make," he said.

Earthjustice represents American Rivers, the National Wildlife Federation, the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association and the Northwest Energy Coalition, which filed the lawsuit.

In Friday's ruling, the court also granted motions from the state of Oregon and three Columbia River treaty tribes to file briefs opposing the BPA's motion and from the Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities and Alcoa Inc. to file briefs in support.

Kathie Durbin, Staff Writer
Fish Spills Backed by Appeals Court
The Columbian, August 14, 2004

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