the film
Commentaries and editorials

Judge Orders
Water Spill for Salmon

by Greg Stahl, Express Staff Writer
Idaho Mountain Express, June 15, 2005

Politicians, activists react to decision

The fight over Northwest salmon, water and electricity is a tennis match this year, and U.S. District Judge James Redden hit the most recent volley.

Redden ruled Friday that federal officials must spill more water through five of eight dams between Lewiston, Idaho, and Portland, Ore., to help flush migrating salmon smolts to the Pacific Ocean. The decision will affect all four lower Snake River dams, as well as McNary Dam on the Columbia River.

However, three federal agencies immediately asked that the U.S. Department of Justice appeal Redden's order to begin spilling water over the dams. Brian Gorman, spokesman for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries at Seattle, said Justice Department attorneys filed motions Monday that would preserve the right of the government to appeal Redden's order to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Gorman said he expects that if an appeal is filed, the government will ask the court to temporarily block the spill order until the case is adjudicated.

"We believe it is very risky to allow fish to go through the spillways in low water years," Gorman told The Lewiston Tribune. Gorman explained that scientists don't know why that's the case, but the return data shows that barging results in "slightly higher rates of return" in low water years.

Friday's U.S. District Court hearing was called to determine how dam operations should be changed to help survival rates of salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act, in the wake of Redden's May 26 rejection of a Bush administration recovery plan.

Redden did not address dam removal in his ruling. He did write, however, that "as currently operated, I find that the dams strongly contribute to the endangerment of the [salmon] species and irreparable injury will result if changes are not made."

The first spills to result from Redden's ruling were scheduled to begin in less than two weeks.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, quickly responded to Redden's decision.

He said the ruling could boost costs for utilities across the Northwest, including eastern Idaho's Fall River Rural Electric Cooperative and northern Idaho's Kootenai Electric Cooperative, as well as Clearwater Power.

They are among small Idaho cooperatives that rely on electricity from the Bonneville Power Authority, which sells hydroelectric power from dams affected by the order.

"Judge Redden's decision will result in higher electricity prices and place an unjustified burden on the shoulders of ratepayers," Craig said. "Whether the increased amount of water spilled over will help boost salmon survival rates is inconclusive at best."

The BPA estimated the extra spill will cost ratepayers a total of $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.

If you ask Idaho Rivers United, the increase should be closer to 2 percent.

"And in Idaho, the impact will be even less," said Executive Director Bill Sedivy. "For instance, Idaho Power customers receive no power from the BPA, which sells power from the Snake and Columbia dams. Across Idaho, only about 12 percent of all power consumed comes from BPA. The impact just won't be that significant."

Sedivy said that if Craig wants to see economic hardship, he should visit Riggins and talk with business owners there about this spring's dismal salmon return.

"Sen. Craig should quit backing failed policies and start looking for solutions that restore salmon, help farmers by protecting their water and revitalizes infrastructures and communities that would be affected by dam removal," he said.

Norm Semanko, president of the Coalition for Idaho Water that includes agricultural, industrial and municipal water users, said Idaho will benefit from Redden's refusal to increase by 10 percent the flows out of the Snake River and the upper Columbia, which had been sought by fish advocates.

"It's a drought year," Semanko said. "We need that water in Idaho."

Greg Stahl, Express Staff Writer
Judge Orders Water Spill for Salmon
Idaho Mountain Express - June 15, 2005

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation