Future of Columbia Basin Dams
by Joe Rojas-Burke
Oregon and conservationists dispute U.S. claims that dams don't imperil salmon
A federal judge will rule in May on the latest legal challenge to federal hydropower dams in the Columbia Basin.
Fishing and conservation groups and the state of Oregon are challenging the federal government's conclusion that the dams will not thwart recovery of threatened and endangered salmon stocks in the basin. Conservation groups say the government is understating the effect of dams on wild fish.
"I have a lot to consider," U.S. District Judge James Redden said Wednesday after hours of testimony at a hearing on the case. In 2003, he rejected the government's previous blueprint for protecting salmon as falling short of Endangered Species Act standards.
The most immediate effect of his ruling next month could be on the price of electricity. Conservation groups seek more water for fish passage that would leave less for generating power -- during a drought year that is driving up wholesale energy prices.
The system of 14 federal dams sprawled across Oregon, Washington and Idaho provides about 40 percent of the electricity used in Northwest states. The dams also provide irrigation and barge transportation to ports as far inland as Idaho.
Electric utilities, farmers and the state of Idaho support the federal government's plan.
Conservation groups and some Northwest tribes have long said the most effective way to return fish to self-sustaining numbers is to remove four dams on the lower Snake River, where salmon and steelhead runs have dwindled despite efforts to restore habitat and reduce the threat from dams.
"I think we are getting to the point where we have to ask the question: What if we can't have both?" said Jan Hasselman of the National Wildlife Federation.
Federal officials and their attorneys said they do not have the authority to order the removal of federal dams -- only Congress has that power. To comply with a 2003 court order, the fisheries service, working with the Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, proposed a detailed plan to compensate for the dams' lethal effects on salmon.
Among the actions, the agencies said, they will expand efforts to reduce predators, such as Caspian terns and pikeminnow, that prey heavily on young salmon.
The agencies said they will outfit all the major dams with structures, called spillway weirs, that help juveniles pass downstream without getting sucked into turbines. The proposal also calls for continuing habitat restoration work and transporting as much as 90 percent of the young of some salmon stocks by barge or truck past the dams.
Federal agencies put the annual cost of salmon protections at $600 million, not including losses of revenue from changes in dam operations that reduce power production.
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