A federal judge said on Friday that the federal agency in charge of saving salmon in the Columbia River Basin from extinction should have a plan in place to remove dams on the lower Snake River if necessary, the AFP reported.
There has been a long running dispute over how to balance energy and utility needs in the Columbia Basin with salmon and steelhead populations.
U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden said he has not eliminated the possibility that the hydroelectric dams could come down to ensure restoration and survival of imperiled salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.
Redden expressed concern over whether breaching of the dams would be the correct solution. “I hope it’s never done, but that’s the last fallback.”
The former Bush Administration vowed the dams would stay, but the current administration led by President Barack Obama has not made a decision regarding the issue.
However, some environmentalists argue that salmon populations cannot recover without removing some dams, particularly the migration bottleneck to Idaho created by four dams on the lower Snake River.
The NOAA Fisheries Service’s plan for balancing endangered salmon works against electricity production on 14 federal Columbia Basin hydroelectric dams still needs work, particularly in the area of habitat improvement, Redden said.
The dams themselves threaten the survival of fish but rely on extensive habitat restoration, modifications to spillways, and changes in salmon hatchery operations without major changes to the amount of water going through turbines, according to Federal agencies.
The federal government agreed during the hearing to let more water pass through Columbia and Snake River dams to help young salmon migrate to the ocean.
“The move is a compromise because the spilled water doesn’t go through turbines to generate power and add millions of dollars to Bonneville Power Administration costs,” said Colby Howell, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney.
Yet some conservationists say more spills remain the biggest factor in greater numbers in recent salmon returns.
A 10-year federal plan was issued in May after others were rejected by Redden. The new plan would help fish passing through the dams survive. But environmentalists have filed lawsuits, arguing that the plan did too little to restore salmon populations.
Howard Funke, a lawyer for the Spokane Indian Tribe, one of two tribes in the region to side with the environmentalists, believes the plan will ensure extinction of those fish.
Federal officials, however, say the plan will aid the survival of fish.
A new development in the long running argument is the fact that Idaho, Washington, Montana and most Columbia River tribes have backed the new plan.
The Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Colville Four Northwest Indian tribal governments all agreed to the plan, which committed the federal agencies to giving the tribes $900 million to spend toward salmon conservation.
Others siding with the federal agencies include the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho. But like the Spokane, the Nez Perce Tribe would not support the move.
On Friday, Redden praised the federal and state officials’ and tribal leaders’ collaboration over the biological matter.
Howell told Redden: “We’ve worked incredibly hard on this. We deserve a chance.”
Still, some believe it will do little to improve conditions for salmon, like Todd True, attorney for the legal group Earthjustice.
“Salmon don’t swim in collaboration,” True said. “They won’t return in greater numbers because of a new collaboration “” no matter how sincere.”
Over the past century, overfishing, habitat loss, pollution and dam construction have caused Columbia Basin salmon returns””once numbered an estimated 10 million to 30 million””to plunge.
Numerous populations have succumbed to extinction, while 13 are listed as threatened or endangered, making it necessary for federal projects such as the hydroelectric system to show they can be operated without causing further harm.
Experts say that each dams kills only a small percentage of the millions of young salmon headed to the ocean, but that adds up to a major death toll over time.
Image 2: Fish ladder at John Day Dam. This dam, frequently referred to as the “fish killer”, and its reservoir form the deadliest stretch of the river for young salmon. (United States Army Corps of Engineers)
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