Obama Administration Decides to
by Nate Poppino
The Obama administration has backed off from a proposal to transport troubled species of salmon and steelhead around three Lower Snake River dams on barges, signaling it will continue to spill water past the dams like it has every spring since 2006.
The barge proposal came as a March 31 filing in a long-running federal court case over recovery efforts for the ocean-going fish throughout the Columbia River Basin. Spring Chinook salmon and steelhead trout are among the species federally listed as threatened or endangered in the Snake River.
U.S. District Judge James Redden has ordered spring spills over the three government dams since 2006 to help the fish migrate to the ocean. But biologists with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggested that given the low projected river flows this year, spill operations should be halted.
NOAA told Redden it would seek guidance on the idea from the Independent Scientific Advisory Board, a group established in 1996 by the agency and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
The suggestion was quickly condemned by the plaintiffs in the case,which include conservation groups and the state of Oregon. The group alleged that NOAA ignored "substantial and reliable scientific analysis" regarding the effectiveness of spills on salmon and steelhead survival rates. It also cited conclusions from the Fish Passage Center, also established by the power council, that spring spills were effective in 2007, also a low-water year.
On Monday, the federal government announced it would continue the mixture of spills and some barge use that it has previously relied on. The ISAB said the government's initial findings to halt the spills were sound, but in the broader picture recommended continuing them to gather more data.
The government in its newer filing distanced itself from the board's review. But it noted the board agreed spills could cut adult steelhead returns by as much as half.
Monday's switch was welcomed by some, including Idaho Rivers United, a plaintiff in the case.
"Now ... we can get back to the real issue of working to draft a scientifically and legally sound biological opinion," Bill Sedivy, the group's executive director, stated in a press release.
But it disappointed others in the region, including Northwest RiverPartners, a group of farmers, utilities, ports and businesses whose membership includes Raft River Rural Electric Cooperative and the city of Rupert. The group asked Redden on Tuesday to examine the "irresponsible gamble" proposed by NOAA.
"Maintaining an operational plan that will admittedly destroy 46,000 returning adults -- fish that reproductively hold the key for future generations ... places the pursuit of academic science ahead of these (federally) protected fish," RiverPartners' attorneys wrote.
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