Salmon advocates ask for more water over dams

By Jef Barnard
Grants Pass, Oregon (AP) 12-08

Salmon advocates and the state of Oregon are asking a federal judge to order more water spilled over Columbia and Snake River dams to help young salmon migrate downriver to the ocean.

The motion for an injunction was filed Nov. 26 in U.S. District Court in Portland.

It is part of the litigation over how to balance hydroelectric needs against threatened and endangered salmon in the Columbia Basin. Water spilled over the dams doesn’t go through turbines to generate power, costing the Bonneville Power Administration millions of dollars.

Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association said evidence shows that increased spill is responsible for improved salmon returns this year, and the dam operators should do even more.


U.S. District Judge James Redden is scheduled to hear arguments on the merits of the latest challenge to the Bush administration’s plan for balancing salmon and dams – known as a biological opinion – on Jan. 16, and rule on the motion seeking more water over the dams sometime afterward.

The federal agencies that operate the dams said in a joint statement that they are happy with the latest operation plan, their breakthrough cooperation agreements with Indian tribes along the river, and work on improving juvenile fish passage over and through the dams as well as river habitat.

“After two years of regional collaboration on a plan for Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead, it is clear we have found common ground,” said the statement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration. “This is no longer just a federal plan, it is now more of a regional plan explicitly supported by three states and six tribes.”

Columbia Basin salmon returns have historically been the West Coast’s largest, and once numbered 10 million to 30 million, but overfishing, habitat loss, pollution and dam construction over the past century have caused their numbers to dwindle precipitously.

Dozens of populations have gone extinct, and 13 are listed as threatened or endangered species, making it necessary for federal projects such as the hydroelectric system to show they can be operated without harming them. The last three plans for balancing salmon and dams, known as biological opinions, failed to pass legal muster.

Each of the dams kills only a small percentage of the millions of young salmon headed downstream during their spring and summer migrations to the ocean, but that adds up to a major death toll.

Those problems are compounded by climatic conditions that promise to make salmon restoration even tougher in the future.