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Commentaries and editorials

Environmentalists Sue to Save Salmon

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, May 4(?), 2001

A broad coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service Thursday, charging the agency's recovery plan for threatened and endangered salmon in the Snake and Columbia Rivers is scientifically and financially inadequate.

The groups are represented by the Earthjustice Legal Defense fund and have asked a federal court in Portland, Ore., to review the biological opinion issued by the service late last year. That opinion said methods other than breaching could lead to recovery of the fish.

Todd True, lead case attorney, called the plan a house of cards built on optimistic assumptions and voluntary actions.

"It's a far cry from the major overhaul of the Columbia River irrigation and hydrosystem that the court called for six years ago," he said.

True said the region has several ways to meet energy, transportation and irrigation needs that don't rely on damming the Snake and Columbia rivers.

"Columbia and Snake river salmon have only one river," he said. "If it will not support them, they will go extinct and they will do it in our lifetime."

A spokesman for the fisheries service defended the plan and said problems with this year's outmigration of juvenile salmon should be blamed on near-record low stream flows in the Columbia River Basin.

"We felt and we still feel that (the plan) is a road map for salmon recovery," said fisheries service spokes-man Brian Gorman. "We would not have written it the way we did if we thought it was inadequate."

The Bonneville Power Administration's ability to abandon fish-friendly, spill-and-flow operations at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation dams on both rivers during drought conditions and energy emergencies is a glaring symptom of the plan's inadequacy, the groups charge.

The plan relies heavily on spilling water over the dams to help young salmon make it to the ocean. But because of low water conditions and a shortage of energy this year, as many fish as possible will be removed from the river and trucked and shipped around the dams. Most of the water will be reserved for turbines that power much of the Northwest.

The salmon groups also are critical of parts of the plan calling for habitat improvements in spawning tributaries and the Columbia River Estuary to offset problems at the dams.

"They rely too much on things they can't control to save the fish," said Bill Sedivy, the executive director of the Idaho Rivers United at Boise. "Things like the weather, things like voluntary habitat improvements by people they don't have control over."

A spokesman at the Bonneville Power Administration said the region would likely be plunged into rolling blackouts if not for a clause in the plan that allows mandated spill regimes to be set aside during power emergencies.

"We have this ongoing issue of humans versus fish. What we are trying to do is adequately respond to both of them," said Mike Hanson at Portland.

Bonneville Power is expected to announce today whether or not additional water will be available for limited spill this spring. At the same time Hanson said up to 500 aluminum workers are expected to show up at Bonneville headquarters to protest energy cutbacks that could cost them jobs.

Sedivy said the service and other federal agencies should be seeking to purchase water from farmers and use it for flow augmentation.

The salmon groups also criticized President Bush for not allocating enough funds to carry out habitat and hatchery reforms called for in the biological opinion. Bush said during the presidential campaign that both salmon and dams could be saved.

While the lawsuit was being filed, record numbers of spring chinook salmon were making their way up the Columbia and Snake rivers. But Jim Martin, a former director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said people should not be mislead by the runs. Most of the fish are from hatcheries and not the wild salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. Martin said the returns are the result of improved ocean conditions and two years of high spring and summer river flows.

"That is the kind of acts of nature it takes to overcome this hydrosystem," he said.

Juvenile salmon headed for the ocean this year are expected to face hostile conditions because of the drought.

Many people expect the Columbia River Indian tribes to file a lawsuit over the federal salmon recovery plan on the grounds it violates their reserved fishing rights guaranteed by treaties with the federal government. But the tribes have not yet indicated whether they will pursue such a course of action.

"The Nez Perce Tribe is carefully reviewing this lawsuit and considering all of its options," said David Cummings, an attorney for the tribe.

Eric Barker
Environmentalists Sue to Save Salmon
Lewiston Tribune, May 4(?), 2001

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