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Commentaries and editorials

Judge Orders Increased Spills
on Snake and Columbia Dams

by Joseph B. Frazier, Associated Press
San Diego Union-Tribune - June 10, 2005

PORTLAND, Ore. -- U.S. District Judge James Redden ordered federal officials on Friday to substantially increase the volume of water spilled through the four Snake River dams and McNary Dam on the Columbia River to make it easier for imperiled juvenile salmon to reach the ocean.

But he rejected a request to increase by 10 percent the flows out of the Snake River and the upper Columbia, which environmentalists had sought in order to lower water temperatures and speed the migration of young salmon to the sea.

"The fall chinook run is in danger" because of the small amount of water that is now being spilled through the dams, Redden said at the start of the hearing. "The law says you can't do that."

The topic of Friday's hearing was how dam operations should be changed to help survival rates of threatened and endangered salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Last month, Redden struck down the Bush administration's $6 billion plan for salmon recovery - saying it fell short of protecting the imperiled fish. At the hearing on Friday, Redden ruled on several measures that are to be implemented immediately in order to help salmon survive until a new plan - called a "biological opinion" - can be drafted by NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for restoring the salmon runs.

Redden predicted his ruling on increasing spill would be appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the federal government said it may do so.

The first spills are scheduled to begin in less than two weeks.

Environmentalists, Indian tribes and commercial fishermen wanted about two-thirds of the water that passes the dams to go through spillways instead of running through the dams' turbines to generate electricity. That would drop gradually to about half as river levels lowered through the summer.

Redden granted that request.

Environmentalists say passing through the turbines takes a high toll on juvenile fish.

The Bonneville Power Administration estimated the extra spill will cost ratepayers $67 million, amounting to an increase of 4 percent to 5 percent in the wholesale rate of about $32 per megawatt, said agency spokesman Mike Hansen.

That would typically amount to an increase of about 2 percent in the rates paid by residential customers.

The defendants, the Bonneville Power Administration, NOAA Fisheries, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said they were disappointed with the ruling and that they had worked with the four Columbia Basin states to find a short-term solution to this year's low-water problems.

"We do not believe injunctive relief is warranted," they said in a joint statement. "An appeal is under consideration. We are extremely concerned that the outcome provides no guarantee for the improvement of salmon stocks and it could make things worse at an enormous cost to the region."

At Friday's hearing, lawyers for the government submitted a proposal to spill about $2.5 million worth of generating capacity at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake and $1 million worth from McNary Dam.

Todd True, an attorney for environmentalists groups at the hearing, said the offer "would amount to about six buckets" of extra spillage.

He said the plan made no significant changes to the one Redden rejected earlier.

Ruth Lowrey, arguing for the government, questioned whether the rapid movement of juvenile fish to the sea is always desirable.

She said "holdover" fish, the 3 percent or so that don't make it to the ocean the first year, return in far greater percentages than the others because they are bigger and can survive more easily.

"I'm not saying there will be fewer holdovers, but there is a risk of it," she said of the environmentalists' requests for more spillage and flow.

She also said that the judge's order to spill more water rather than use it for electricity generation "will cost jobs, stifle our economy" and cost ratepayers $67 million.

But environmentalists said the judge was sending the government a message that can't be ignored.

"The ruling said the federal government cannot walk away from its responsibilities for salmon and to the communities that rely on them," said Jan Hasselman of Seattle, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, the lead plaintiff in Friday's case.

He and representatives of other environmental groups are pressing for the removal.

Joseph B. Frazier, Associated Press
Judge Orders Increased Spills on Snake and Columbia Dams
San Diego Union-Tribune, June 10, 2005

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