Feds Being Sued Over New Decision
by Annette Cary
The study found that breaching four lower Snake River dams
would be the most effective salmon restoration action.
A coalition of environmental and fishing groups will ask the courts to intervene for a sixth time after the federal government again decided not to breach the four lower Snake River hydroelectric dams.
Earthjustice on Thursday filed a 60-day notice of intent to file a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of 11 environmental and fishing organizations seeking to restore endangered salmon and steelhead in the Snake and Columbia rivers.
"Hundreds of thousands of people in the region -- including tribes, scientists, energy experts, and fishing businesses -- told the agencies to remove the four dams that are causing the most harm to the fish and to our communities," said Earthjustice attorney Todd True.
"But the Trump administration did not listen and rubber-stamped a plan that yet again fails to take the legally required actions necessary to protect salmon and steelhead," he said.
The decision issued by federal agencies in late September was based on a four-year study of the Columbia River hydrosystem that settled on protective actions that are not that different from those in studies previously rejected by the federal court, said the notice of intent to sue.
The study recommended and federal agencies adopted a plan to increase the amount of water spilled over Columbia and Snake river dams each spring to help juvenile fish heading downstream.
Although the study found that breaching four lower Snake River dams would be the most effective salmon restoration action, it also looked at the social and economic effects of that action to make its recommendation.
Impacts to flood risk management, water for irrigation, shipping of agriculture products and other goods, hydropower generation and recreation were weighed.
"Instead of proposing solutions that get us to an abundance of wild fish, this continues down the decades long path of failed recovery efforts," said Nic Nelson, executive director of Idaho Rivers United.
The fishing and conservation groups named in the notice of intent to sue also are challenging recent Trump administration rollbacks to the Endangered Species Act regulations, saying the new federal plan for dam operations relies on the newly weakened regulations to support its conclusions.
The latest study was done after U.S. Judge Michael Simon rejected a 2016 hydropower management plan.
He ordered a study for a new management plan and required that it consider breaching the four Snake River dams in Eastern Washington state from Ice Harbor near Burbank, upstream to Lower Granite north of Pomeroy.
"It is disappointing -- but not at all surprising -- to see the same litigious special interest groups attacking this administration's robust, transparent, science-based environmental review of the Columbia River system, just as they did with the Obama Administration's previous review," said Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.
He said he would continue to defer to the federal scientists, engineers and fish experts who developed the hydropower system management plan adopted in September. It would help fish species while supporting the Pacific Northwest's affordable hydroelectric power system, he said.
Northwest RiverPartners said it was disappointed that several of the organizations listed in the notice of intent to sue are groups that had previously called for regional collaboration for the purpose of avoiding endless litigation.
"Further, this move seems to cast doubt on the good faith nature of the work envisioned by the Northwest governors' recently announced four-state agreement on salmon recovery," Northwest RiverPartners said.
RiverPartners represents community electric utilities in six western states, plus farmers, ports and businesses that rely on the river system for irrigation and transportation.
Organizations named in the intent to sue are American Rivers, Idaho Rivers United, Institute for fisheries Resources, Northwest Energy Coalition, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Columbia Riverkeeper and Idaho Conservation League.
"While we share their goal of salmon restoration, a slew of new scientific reports demonstrate that salmon declines are not isolated to any particular river or system," said Northwest River Partners.
"Instead, salmon face a trans-oceanic problem that is largely the direct result of climate change. This problem requires a holistic solution," it said.
Removing or reducing hydroelectric generation would likely require fossil fuel replacements, leading to more greenhouse gases that are the driver behind the warming, acidifying ocean conditions that threaten key salmon populations worldwide, it said.
The removal of dams also would be expected to disproportionately harm the Northwest's low-income residents, who spend a much greater share of their income on basic needs, such as utilities, it said.
Replacing the four lower Snake River dams with alternate energy resources would cost almost $1 billion annually and increase the average utility bill by 25%, it said.
"We are hopeful the organizations behind the lawsuit will reconsider and move back to the collaborative process they had previously publicly supported," Northwest RiverPartners said.
Several environmental groups, including some listed in the notice of intent to sue, praised the four-state agreement signed earlier this month to work collaboratively to rebuild 24 stocks of salmon and steelhead.
The agreement said the states also would consider the social, cultural, economic and environmental factors identified by the task force when deciding how to achieve those goals.
The proposed lawsuit will be unproductive, dividing the many entities that must work together to support fish populations and delaying work that needs to be done, said the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, a trade association of ports, businesses and public agencies that rely on the river system for trade, energy and other uses.
"Narrowing the focus of Columbia Basin salmon recovery to the removal of four Snake River dams ignores the complexity of the basin, the numerous threats faced by the species from ocean conditions and climate change, and the comprehensive commitment our region must have to fish survival and ecological health," said Kristin Meira, executive director of the organization. "This lawsuit is the wrong action focusing on the wrong target."
Behind the lawsuit
But environmental groups said the new hydropower plan fails not only Northwest salmon, but tribes, fishing businesses and the endangered southern resident orca whale population that feeds primarily on chinook along the Washington coast.
Legal action is needed to "protect our iconic species from extinction," but members of Congress from Oregon, Washington and Idaho also need to step up with a regional solution, said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper.
"The latest federal plan for dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers completely fails Idaho," said Justin Hayes, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League. "It isn't good enough for the many guides, outfitters, river businesses, and communities in Idaho that depend on healthy runs of fish."
Idaho interests say the four lower Snake River impede fish passage between the Pacific Ocean and cold-water streams in central Idaho.
The new management plan also fails to consider the value of commercial salmon fishing in the Pacific Ocean from central California to Southeast Alaska, according to the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association.
Recovering damaged salmon runs in the Snake and Columbia rivers could restore about 25,000 family wage jobs and lead to $500 million in annual economic benefits, it said.
Although Northwest tribes were not listed in the intent to sue notice, they have previously criticized the management of the Columbia hydroelectric system, with the Nez Perce saying as recently as this month that major changes are needed to restore salmon runs in the Nez Perce Territory.
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