Judge Stiffens Salmon Rules after
by Rocky Barker
BPA must realized fish-protection measures aren't optional, James Redden says
A federal judge chastised the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Wednesday for violating commitments to minimize killing endangered salmon at the Columbia and Snake rivers dams.
U.S. District Court Judge James Redden of Portland issued his surprising order, which made the 2007 dam operations agreement a federal court order.
The agreement is between the federal agencies, the judge and environmentalists, fishermen and Indian tribes who sued over the plan for protecting endangered salmon. The plan is called a biological opinion or BiOp for short.
Redden issued his order after a whistleblower woke him up at 4:30 a.m. April 10 to reveal the federal agencies' violation. He had asked the agencies to file briefs explaining their actions and held a closed-door hearing with all of the parties prior to his decision.
Redden ordered federal fish and dam managers in 2005 to rewrite their plan for preventing dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers from sending 12 stocks of endangered salmon and steelhead into extinction. A draft of the new plan was released by the agencies Tuesday.
Salmon are symbols of the wild character of the region and provide hundreds of millions of dollars in income for fishermen and fishing communities. The federal dams produce nearly half of the electricity used in the Pacific Northwest.
Bonneville, the agency that markets federal power from the dams, had sold more power than the dams could deliver April 3 when temperatures dropped suddenly and demand for the electricity spiked.
BPA did not call for a power emergency, which would allow the agency to change dam operations from the requirements that reduce the number of salmon killed in the dam's turbines. It tried "diligently" to buy back the needed electricity but couldn't, Redden said in his order.
So, for two hours that day, they violated their agreement, by operating the turbines to maximize electric power generation.
"What happened April 3 was a rare unplanned and unexpected event that occurred during a rare, narrow window of time due to a series of unfortunate circumstances," said BPA spokesman Scott Simms.
The agencies said the number of salmon killed was minimal since few were in the river at that time. But Redden said the agencies missed the point.
He said their entire decision making process is flawed.
"Apparently, BPA's sales commitments to customers always trump its obligation to protect ESA-listed species," Redden wrote in his order. "BPA must realize, however, that the fish-protection measures detailed in the 2000 and 2004 BiOps are not optional. Nor is compliance with the ESA."
After flood control the priority for federal dam operations is fish, Simms said. Power generation is a third level priority, as demonstrated by summer spills, that carry water away from turbines and over spillways to help salmon migrate downstream.
"We agree that compliance with the Endangered Species Act is of critical importance and it is not optional," Simms said.
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