Salmon Advocates Propose
by Nate Poppino
As a legal fight continues over how salmon should be managed in the Columbia River system, salmon advocates have asked a federal judge to institute temporary protections for the fish.
The National Wildlife Federation, other advocacy groups and the state of Oregon filed a motion Tuesday for a temporary injunction spilling more water over eight federal dams and raising overall flows for the Columbia and Snake rivers during the fish's migration season, which starts in April.
"The whole goal here is to push baby salmon through the river system as quickly as possible while leaving them in the river," Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, said on Wednesday.
According to a summary of the request, the dams would be directed to spill as much water as possible without violating the Clean Water Act, and would require federal agencies to do whatever necessary to meet targeted flow levels set by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service's 1995 and 2000 salmon plans. Among other arguments, the groups say Idaho's high sockeye salmon returns to Redfish Lake this summer were caused in part by spill programs conducted in 2006, Sedivy said.
The filing is the latest step in a series of challenges from the groups to salmon recovery plans proposed by the federal government. NOAA Fisheries is the agency in charge of the government recovery effort.
In a statement released Wednesday, officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said they had not yet fully reviewed the injunction, but still support NOAA Fisheries' latest recovery plan. They also argued that current projects being conducted with three states and several American Indian tribes, as well as an overhaul of the river system, "have resulted in measurable and significant improvements in fish survival."
A call to NOAA Fisheries was not returned in time for this report.
The salmon groups are currently fighting the government's latest proposal in court, and a hearing is planned for Jan. 16 in Portland. A ruling on the injunction request is not expected until after that, perhaps February, according to the summary.
Idaho irrigators and water users have cautiously watched the case, concerned that salmon groups would require more water from Idaho's tight supply.
This injunction does not call for any new water to come from Idaho users, Sedivy said. Rather, he said, it just calls for the federal government to change how it delivers water already promised through other agreements. Most effects to the state would likely be seen in Idaho Power Co.'s Hells Canyon dam complex, which would possibly have to shift some of its flows to earlier in the season, he said.
The injunction, Sedivy said, is only a "stop-gap" meant to preserve salmon until a final plan is worked out.
"It's not the solution," he said, though he added it does provide a "road map" for the judge to protect the fish.
Despite the long history of the court case, Sedivy said he thinks the stage is set for a compromise agreement - in part because of the incoming Obama administration and of the changes to Idaho's congressional delegation.
Federal officials have argued this year that their plan is the needed compromise, after a number of tribes moved to back it following agreements providing them with funds for their own fish recovery projects. Some government opponents have characterized the government as bribing the tribes, and Sedivy spoke of hopes to sit down and discuss the salmon issue with U.S. Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo and Reps. Mike Simpson and Walt Minnick.
"We're thrilled" about Idaho's delegation, he said. "I think those guys see the status quo isn't working for anybody."
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