Court Ruling Will Force Feds
Salmon advocates say feds put politics ahead of science
It took an Oregon judge to take a tough stand for Idaho salmon.
U.S. District Judge James Redden combined guts and good timing Wednesday. He ordered the federal government to continue releasing water to help young salmon migrate to the Pacific, just days before the feds planned to start reneging on that commitment. Redden also showed more gumption than three Northwest governors, including Idaho's Dirk Kempthorne, who sided with the feds and not their states' fish.
Endangered wild salmon are a priceless icon of the Northwest and an irreplaceable piece of the wild ecosystem. When it comes to saving them, the Northwest can't afford to sacrifice fish or accept broken promises. Make no mistake: The Bonneville Power Administration's plan would have killed thousands of young fish trying to reach the ocean. The federal agency wanted to reduce water spills over four Snake and Columbia river dams. The spill is valuable because it sweeps young salmon around the turbines that can kill them. When more young salmon reach the ocean, more salmon come back to the rivers to spawn. If Redden hadn't issued his injunction Wednesday, the BPA would have started shutting down spills at two Columbia River dams on Sunday, saving the water for hydropower production.
The BPA built its case on two points. The agency made an unpersuasive attempt to downplay the effects on salmon populations.
The BPA conceded that thousands of smolts would die without the summer spill, including about 500 Snake River fall chinook migrating downriver. The BPA said that would translate to a loss of only two to 20 salmon actually returning to Idaho. That might sound minor when, according to data provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, more than 3,000 adult fish have returned per year over the past decade. Salmon runs are improving but volatile. This is no time to cut back on programs that help Snake River fall chinook, a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The BPA argued that its plan would save ratepayers $18 million to $28 million. That's a tougher point to dismiss. Kempthorne, for one, said the plan balanced the fish's needs "with the region's economic realities." Redden said Wednesday that he had a "difficult case" in front of him. It isn't easy to put a price tag on fish. However, there is clearly value in holding the federal government to its word when it comes to protecting the Northwest's salmon.
The spill program is one of the commitments the federal government made several years ago when it argued against removing four lower Snake River dams to help salmon reach the ocean. Redden knows these promises well; he threw out the feds' laundry list of recovery programs in May 2003, saying they failed to meet the Endangered Species Act's requirements. The spill is one piece of that recovery puzzle that did make sense and does save fish. Backing away from the spill is not only "arbitrary and capricious," as Redden said Wednesday, it's disingenuous.
Said Rob Masonis, Northwest regional director of American Rivers, a Seattle environmental group, "It's a sign of the times that it takes a court order to hold federal agencies to their promises." We're disappointed that Kempthorne didn't hold the feds to their word ‹ but we're relieved that Redden will.
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