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Ruling Hisses at Snake River Dams

by Hal Bernton
The Seattle Times, March 25, 2000

A federal judge has ruled that four dams on the Lower Snake River must comply with the federal Clean Water Act, a decision that may give conservationists a new weapon in their fight to breach the dams to help salmon.

U.S. District Judge Helen Frye of Portland, in a decision made public yesterday, cited evidence that the dams, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, could violate water-quality standards by increasing the river's temperature and dissolved gases.

But the judge requested that more records be submitted before she makes a final ruling on whether the dams actually violate the standards.

Army Corps of Engineer officials could not be reached. In legal filings, Corps attorneys have claimed there is no factual basis to support the conclusion that dam operations violate water-quality standards.

Conservationists yesterday said they were confident that the final ruling would go their way, and they predicted huge costs to bring the four dams into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.

Their estimates ranged from $460 million to $900 million

"The court's order provides yet another reason for the government to seriously consider dam removal," said Nicole Cordan of the National Wildlife Federation, one of eight conservation groups that filed the lawsuit challenging the federal dam operations.

The dams are the focus of a debate over restoration of Columbia Basin salmon runs that has pitted conservationists against irrigators, aluminum companies and other groups that have benefited from their power production. The Corps is set to make a recommendation later this year about whether the dams should be breached. Congress will make the final decision.

The dams can warm water as it backs up behind reservoirs and increase the gas content of water as it cascades down spillways. Conservationists say both those conditions can harm salmon.

But attorney James Buchal said that there's no evidence that dam operations are killing salmon. And he said Congress never intended the Clean Water Act to be used to tear down dams.

Hal Bernton
Ruling Hisses at Snake River Dams
The Seattle Times, March 25, 2000

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