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Conservation Groups, Oregon, Nez Perce File To Stop Capital Projects At Lower Snake River Dams
Posted on Thursday, January 19, 2017 (PST)

Conservation groups, the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe are pleading their case before the U.S. District Court of Oregon to stop eleven capital projects at the four lower Snake River dams until the three federal agencies that operate the dams complete a National Environmental Policy Act review that could call for removing the dams.


In addition, the groups are asking that the court order the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide maximum spill at the dams during spring and summer at the four Snake River dams, and also at the four lower Columbia River mainstem dams. The higher spill levels should persist, the groups said, until NOAA Fisheries completes its next biological opinion of the federal Columbia River power system, which is to be done by court order December 31, 2018.


The eleven projects could save taxpayers about $110 million if the lower Snake River dams end up being removed, according to Idaho Rivers United, one of the groups represented by attorneys at Earthjustice. The groups say the targeted infrastructure projects exclude those that would aid salmon passage.


“For 20 years Idahoans have been frustrated by the federal government's failure to deliver actions that work for salmon and the people who depend on them,” said Idaho Rivers United executive director Kevin Lewis. “This filing is to protect salmon and prevent the federal government from stonewalling real progress in the Pacific Northwest and Idaho.”


The $110 million listed in the document filed Monday is an estimate by the environmental groups. More than half of the money will go to Ice Harbor Dam and includes new turbine blades, they said.


The request is follow-up to Judge Michael H. Simon’s ruling in May that remanded NOAA Fisheries’ 2014 biological opinion of the FCRPS. Among other issues in that ruling, Simon said that NOAA and federal dam operating agencies had not considered all options available to avoid jeopardy for the 13 species of salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act. One option not considered was breaching the four Snake River dams.


He also ordered the federal agencies to conduct a five-year NEPA review that includes their removal. A new BiOp is to be completed at the end of 2018 and another once the NEPA review is complete in 2021.


(See CBB, July 15, 2016, “Judge Gives Feds Nearly Five Years To Complete NEPA Process For New Basin Salmon/Steelhead Recovery Plan,”


Northwest River Partners, a coalition of businesses and river users that has intervened on the side of the federal government in this case, opposes dam removal.


“We need to keep investing in critical infrastructure like the Snake River dams,” said Terry Flores, director of the Portland- based group. “We need to keep them well maintained so we can keep the lights on and keep people safe and warm, and the economy running.”


The conservation groups filed their motion for injunctive relief last week, January 9, in Judge Simon’s court and under the same docket as the BiOp challenge case – National Wildlife Federation v NOAA Fisheries.


The filing is at


According to Earthjustice, the parties have asked Judge Simon to order the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and the Bureau of Reclamation to increase the amount of water that flows over dam spillways. That, they say, would improve survival rates during the spring juvenile salmon migration season.


They also asked the Court to halt federal agency capital spending on major long-term investments at the four dams until the dam operating agencies complete a “new and adequate salmon plan.” That’s the NEPA environmental impact statement currently in process. The first phase – scoping – is due for completion February 7.


(See CBB, January 6, 2017, “Comment Period Extended For Feds’ Scoping On New EIS For Columbia/Snake River Hydro System,”


These measures should be implemented in the short-term while the agencies move ahead with developing a new plan to protect threatened and endangered wild salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia and Snake rivers, Earthjustice said in its news release.


“It makes no sense to continue investing tens of millions of dollars in these dams when we know removing them is the single best step we can take to protect our legacy of wild salmon in the Snake River,” said Earthjustice attorney Todd True.


Spill has helped increase the survival of juveniles migrating to the ocean. Scientific evidence now indicates that even more spill will provide even more survival benefits to these imperiled fish, Earthjustice said in its news release.


“The numbers of salmon returning to the Columbia Basin are declining and these declines are being felt sharply by our businesses and the families they employ,” said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. “From NSIA’s perspective, the best thing that has happened for salmon was when Judge Redden ordered more spill for fall out-migrants in 2006. You’d think that the data on the positive response from fall chinook would have NOAA clamoring to do the same for spring outmigrants, but here we are. More spill is a no-brainer for fish.”


Earthjustice said that dam removal could bring about an economic boost to “flagging commercial and sportfishing industries,” which is about $3 billion business throughout the Northwest. Salmon declines have caused the commercial fishing industry to suffer, with government estimates showing that personal income values associated with Columbia salmon runs dropped from an historic high of about $500 million each year to under $20 million.


"The once-great salmon runs of the Columbia-Snake River are one of the Pacific Northwest's most valuable economic resources, potentially supporting a billion dollar fishing industry and tens of thousands more jobs," said Glen Spain, NW Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "Until there is a legal Salmon Recovery Plan in place, we are only asking the Court to order the feds to do more of what the scientists know works (i.e., more spring "spill") while not committing to doing more stuff like what has never worked."


Ed Bowles, head of the Fish Division at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, filed January 9, a declaration in support. He said Oregon seeks higher spill, which has been associated with higher juvenile survival and better smolt to adult returns, at the four lower Snake River dams and at the four mainstem Columbia River dams downstream – McNary, John Day, The Dalles and Bonneville dams – until the BiOp is completed at the end of 2018.


“Specifically … the State requests an order directing the Army Corps of Engineers to spill the maximum amount of water through the spillways without exceeding state water quality standards for total dissolved gas from April 3 to June 20 for the Lower Snake River dams and April 10 to June 15 for the Lower Columbia River dams for the duration of the remand period,” he said in his declaration.


Bowles’ declaration is at:


Oregon would like an even earlier start to spring spill. In previous years, spill has begun to some degree in early April, but that fails to provide spill for the earliest migrants, “which is key for species diversity,” Bowles said. In addition, “the overall run timing may be moving earlier, consistent with climate change, increasing the proportion of fish that must pass the dams without the benefit of voluntary spill.”


“Diversity helps maintain the raw materials needed to survive long-term environmental change,” he added.


Although Oregon is not asking for earlier spring spill, Bowles offered an alternative, requesting that the Corps “operate juvenile bypass facilities and associated Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag detection systems beginning March 1 to better inform future management decisions and the new BiOp on juvenile passage timing,” he said in his declaration. “Such monitoring, because it will involve operation of juvenile bypass systems earlier than normal, will also offer some limited survival benefit because it will afford an alternative to turbine passage prior to initiation of spring voluntary spill.”


“The increased spill we’re asking for isn’t enough to actually restore wild salmon, but it’s an important and positive step we can take today while federal agencies work to comply with the court’s ruling requiring legal salmon plan by 2021,” Lewis said.


Judge Simon will hear oral arguments regarding the injunction filings March 15, 10 am.


Also see:


--CBB, December 16, 2016, “Scoping Meetings On Basin Salmon/Steelhead EIS End; Next Step Developing Alternatives For Evaluation,”


--CBB, December 2, 2016, “Irrigators Petition Trump Transition Team For ‘God Squad’ Intervention In Salmon BiOp Remand,”


--CBB, November 18, 2016, “Hundreds Turn Out For Lewiston Federal Scoping Meeting Regarding Draft EIS For Snake River Dams,”


-- CBB, Oct. 7, 2016, “Agencies Seek Public ‘Scoping’ Comments For EIS Related To New Basin Salmon/Steelhead Recovery Plan,”


-- CBB, May 6, 2016, “Federal Court Again Rejects Columbia Basin Salmon/Steelhead Recovery Plan; Orders New BiOp By 2018,”

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