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Court Won't Stop Spill Over
Four Snake and Columbia River Dams

by Hal Bernton, Seattle Times staff reporter
The Seattle Times, June 22, 2005

A federal appeals court yesterday declined to block a summer spill of water over four Snake and Columbia river dams, a major change in hydropower operations ordered earlier this month to help endangered salmon migrate to the sea.

The spill over three of those dams -- rather than through the turbines -- began Monday. If it continues through the end of August, it could cost ratepayers an estimated $57 million to $81 million in lost power revenues and raise wholesale power rates by 3 to 5 percent, according to federal officials.

Tribes and environmental and sport-fishing industry groups say the spill is an important new effort to help an endangered run of Snake River fall chinook salmon. Most of these fish are now barged around the dams.

But U.S. District Court Judge James Redden in Portland, Ore., earlier this month ordered federal dam operators to keep more of the salmon in the river. That is now being done by flushing water over Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams on the Snake River in Eastern Washington, and water next month will be spilled over McNary Dam on the Columbia between Oregon and Washington.

Officials with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries, the Army Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration contend the spill is a costly, risky experiment that may do more harm than good and put an unneeded burden on irrigators, industries, communities and other big hydropower consumers. Last week, their attorneys asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for a stay that would put the order on hold.

But in yesterday's decision turning down the stay, the appeals court found that federal agencies had failed to demonstrate a "likelihood of success [in their appeal] and a possibility of irreparable injury" if they didn't prevail.

Instead, the appeals-court judges opted for an expedited review of the case that, in the weeks ahead, gives the federal government another chance to make its case to end the spill.

The fight in appeals court is part of a broader, high-stakes battle over management of the basin's hydropower system, which supplies electricity to much of the Pacific Northwest region, including Seattle. Fishery scientists have cited the hydropower system as a major obstacle to recovery of the basin's wild-salmon runs listed under the Endangered Species Act.

In a spring decision, Redding ruled the Bush administration's plan for operating the hydropower system violated the act.

In the aftermath of that ruling, environmentalists, tribes and sport-fishing industry groups are seeking wide-ranging changes to make the hydropower system more salmon friendly. They hope Congress eventually would approve removal of the Lower Snake River dams, a move bitterly opposed by some other groups in the region, such as barge operators.

Mortality in the Hydrosystem Corridor
Downstream Migration of Juvenile Fish
  Average (1994-1999)
Direct Mortality Fall Chinook Spring Chinook Steelhead
Columbia/Snake Dams
(Mortality from 8 dams)
12% 20% 17%
Columbia/Snake Reservoirs
(Mortality from 8 reservoirs)
81% 40% 41%
Indirect Mortality ? ? ?

-- National Marine Fisheries Service, December 21, 2000 (more)

Hal Bernton, Seattle Times staff reporter
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Court Won't Stop Spill Over Four Snake and Columbia River Dams
The Seattle Times, June 22, 2005

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