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Snake River Dams Focus of
Federal Lawsuit Ruling, Draft State Report

by Mallory Gruben
The Daily News, December 26, 2019

"The time has come -- the EPA must do so now," the panel wrote in its ruling last week.

Map: Lower Snake River Dam: Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite are the four dams advocates hope to see breached. (Courtesy Corps of Engineers) A federal court ruling last week mandating a salmon protection plan related to warm river temperatures caused by dams could impact ongoing salmon recovery efforts on the Columbia-Snake River System.

And on the same day as the ruling, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee released a stakeholder report summarizing comments in support and against removing four Lower Snake River dams to boost salmon populations and help feed orca.

Environmentalist group Columbia Riverkeeper, which historically has supported dam removal, praised the federal court ruling as "a victory," saying it forces the EPA to do its job to protect rivers -- and the endangered salmon that live in them -- from dangerously hot water.

"The Clean Water Act bans the Columbia River temperatures over 68-degrees Fahrenheit. ... But the government agencies in charge of the Columbia and Snake river dams aren't obeying the law," Riverkeeper wrote in a Friday press release. "Today's ruling establishes that EPA is legally obligated to write a plan to bring the rivers' temperature back in line with the needs of salmon -- and the requirements of the Clean Water Act."

Riverkeeper and several other salmon interest groups sued the EPA in February 2017, alleging that the agency "failed to undertake its mandatory duty" to create a plan to manage temperature pollution in the river. Friday's ruling upholds a lower court's decision to require the EPA to submit a "long overdue" plan.

The suit was spurred by several years of record-high river water temperatures, including a 2015 incident when 250,000 adult sockeye salmon died due to hot river temperatures, according to the Riverkeeper release.

Water temperatures warmer than 68 degrees Fahrenheit is "particularly dangerous" for salmon and trout because it makes it more difficult for fish to migrate upstream to spawn and increases the chance fish will die of disease, according to court documents. Dams are a primary cause for warm river waters, according to court documents.

A panel of Ninth Circuit Court judges Friday upheld a 2018 decision that the EPA was obligated to create its own management plan for water temperature on the Columbia and Snake rivers after Washington and Oregon didn't submit plans for approval, according to court documents.

"The time has come -- the EPA must do so now," the panel wrote in its ruling last week.

The decision moves forward a years long effort to improve salmon recovery rates on the Columbia and Snake rivers. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 13 populations of Columbia-Snake River salmon are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Many conservation groups point to dams as a reason for the salmon's decline because they create still, warm pools of water along the river that exhaust young salmon on their way to the ocean and increase their chance of dying. And recently state officials linked the dams to the declining population of Southern Resident orcas, which live part of the year in Puget Sound and primarily rely on healthy and plentiful salmon populations for food.

Decades of debate

State legislators provided $750,000 in the 2019-2021 budget for Gov. Jay Inslee's "orca task force" to conduct a "stakeholder engagement study" about what various state river users think about proposals to remove the four Lower Snake River dams. Inslee released the first draft of that study on Friday.

Although the report does not offer any recommendations on how to help salmon and orca populations, it provides insights from tribal leaders, industry officials, conservationists, farmers and other river stakeholders about what the consequences of dam removal would be.

The 115-page document summarizes interviews with almost 100 agency leaders and online survey responses from more than 3,500 Washington residents. It also reviews previous reports and studies.

Many business leaders, energy officials and farmers support keeping the dams for their energy, transportation and economic benefits, according to the report.

The four Lower Snake dams (Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor) produce enough power to light the City of Seattle for a year. And they are integral parts of the 31-dam Columbia-Snake River navigation system that local ports rely on to ship grain and other commodities.

Conservationists, though, say dam breaching is the only action that hasn't been tried to help salmon and orca, according to the report. Any energy or transportation benefits lost in dam breaching could be replaced by investments into alternative options, like wind and solar power or rail lines.

Inslee will use the stakeholder study to inform his perspective on the dams and determine if and how to participate in ongoing federal environmental evaluations of the Columbia and Snake River system, according to a press release.

"Debate over the dams has gone on for several decades and the issues are complex. Despite some recent improvements in collaboration, many of the participants remain wary of the cycle of study, lawsuits and court decisions," the report says. "There is both hope and despair about what comes next and the potential for progress."

The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association -- a regional group of ports, businesses and agencies that's long supported the dams' economic, transportation and energy benefits -- criticized Inslee's study for duplicating an environmental impact statement already underway by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies.

That draft EIS is set to be released in February 2020, and it will include evaluations for how different long-term operating plans could affect the environment, flood risk, irrigation, power generation, navigation, fish and wildlife, cultural resources and recreation on the river.

"(Inslee's) draft report on the Lower Snake River Dams Stakeholder Process was produced with Washington taxpayer funding, which could have gone toward activities that directly benefit salmon and orcas," PNWA Executive Director Kristin Meira said in a prepared statement Friday. "While we appreciate the diligence of the consultants leading this process in reaching out to PNWA members and other stakeholders, the product that was commissioned by the State is essentially a status report of river operations followed by a survey of opinions -- not science-based salmon recovery."

Inslee's draft report is available online at, and additional public comment can be submitted until Jan. 24 at

Representatives from some rivers interest groups will also present a summary of the report and their perspectives during three public workshops this January, including a meeting from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Jan. 9 at Washington State University-Vancouver.

Mallory Gruben
Snake River Dams Focus of Federal Lawsuit Ruling, Draft State Report
The Daily News, December 26, 2019

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