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Corps Must Fix Snake Dams to Save Fish

by Associated Press & Herald Staff
Tri-City Herald, February 17, 2001

PORTLAND -- A federal court ruled Friday that the Army Corps of Engineers' operation of the four lower Snake River dams violates the Clean Water Act -- a decision that could force the agency to spend millions of dollars to modify the dams to protect endangered salmon.

The decision also gives increased visibility to efforts to breach the dams at a time when breaching supporters had lost political momentum following the election of President Bush, who has opposed dam breaching.

"I cannot overstate the importance of this ruling for native salmon and steelhead," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.

The U.S. District Court in Portland ordered the Corps to find ways -- within 60 days -- to lower water temperatures behind the dams to protect the river's water quality and help threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.

In its written ruling, the federal court said "it was clear error of judgment by the Corps not to address compliance with its legal obligations under the Clean Water Act."

Exactly how the Corps will choose to meet the law was not clear Friday -- though a drought year such as this one likely will make the agency's task substantially more difficult.

Already, the Corps has been ordered by the Bonneville Power Administration to release water from Idaho's Dworshak Dam for winter power. In past years, the Corps has relied heavily on Dworshak water in the summer for cooling temperatures in the lower Snake that are nearly lethal to salmon.

Rob Masonis, a spokesman for the conservation group American Rivers, said Friday's ruling will force the Corps to make operational or structural changes to bring the dams into compliance with the clean water law. He said structural modifications, including changes to the way water is sent over dams, could cost millions.

"The obvious solution is to remove the dams," Masonis said. "That is what we have been recommending in order to comply with the Clean Water Act and be in compliance with the Endangered Species Act."

The ruling supports environmental groups, which were joined by the Nez Perce tribe and the state of Oregon in the suit, in charging that the dams raise water temperatures and add levels of nitrogen that violate water quality standards.

"When an agency continues to ignore its obligations under the law, it's important for us to speak for the environment and the fish that rely on a healthy river system," said Samuel N. Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.

Operation of the four dams has made a significant contribution to poor water quality on the lower Snake, making the river slower, deeper and too warm for fish, said Tim Stearns of the National Wildlife Federation. The release of water over the dams also sends nitrogen into the water that harms fish.

"This ruling makes it clear that the Corps is just like everybody else," Stearns said. "They are not above the law."

Dutch Meier, an Army Corps spokesman in Walla Walla, said he had not seen the ruling.

"Once we receive it, we will study it for its implications or requirements so we can determine what actions may be appropriate or necessary and develop any appropriate plans," he said.

It also was not clear Friday how the ruling could affect the National Marine Fisheries Service's plan for saving Columbia Basin salmon from extinction.

Last December, NMFS said the federal government should put its efforts into restoring habitat in tributaries and estuaries, but not breaching Snake River dams. The agency said then, it would re-evaluate the salmon recovery effort after three years.

Associated Press & Herald Staff
Corps Must Fix Snake Dams to Save Fish
Tri-City Herald, February 17, 2001

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