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Judge: More water for fish, less for power from Columbia, Snake dams

A federal judge is allowing $37 million in improvements at Ice Harbor Dam near Burbank, saying they will benefit juvenile fish even if they affect a study on whether to remove dams in the region.
A federal judge is allowing $37 million in improvements at Ice Harbor Dam near Burbank, saying they will benefit juvenile fish even if they affect a study on whether to remove dams in the region. Tri-City Herald

More water must be spilled from dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to improve the chances that young salmon heading toward the ocean will survive, a federal judge in Portland ruled Monday.

U.S. Judge Michael Simon said that protected salmon continue to be imperiled and that the Army Corps of Engineers must spill more water for the fish at eight dams, starting next year.

But he declined to halt a $37 million upgrade at Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River near Burbank, which the challengers also requested.

“A spill ‘test’ will result in higher electric bills for Northwest families and businesses but will do little or nothing (for) — perhaps even harm — salmon,” argued Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners. The group includes farmers, utilities, ports and businesses.

Dams are not generating electricity when they spill water.

Todd True, an attorney for Earthjustice, said the judge’s ruling would not protect fish from dam operations in the long run, but “we are encouraged that increased spring spill will be granted to reduce irreparable harm to juvenile salmon and steelhead.”

Plaintiffs had asked for the eight dams to spill water around the clock during this spring’s migration, a halt to $37 million of planned upgrades at Ice Harbor Dam and a ban on any additional projects at lower Snake River dams if they cost more than $1 million.

But Simon decided the spilling did not need to start as early as next week as requested by Earthjustice, the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce.

“(That) is too rushed and does not provide sufficient time to ensure that the increased spill will not cause unintended negative consequences,” he said.

Instead, the judge told the government to spend the next year studying how best to release the right amount of water at each dam without creating strong eddies or other conditions that could wind up endangering the fish further.

Too much spill creates high gas levels in the water that can hurt juvenile fish. It can give them “the bends” much like scuba divers experience, Flores said.

She described increasing spill as having diminishing returns, with survival benefits few and uncertain.

We are relieved that the court will provide much needed near-term help to salmon populations that call the Columbia and Snake rivers home.

Amy Grondin, Washington commercial fisherman

The amount that power bills would increase is unknown.

If water was spilled over the dams 24 hours a day during the spring juvenile migration, Bonneville Power Administration costs would increase $40 million, causing consumer electric rates to increase 2 percent, Flores said, based on information from a BPA study.

The judge declined to require 24-hour spills, calling for testing and development of spill patterns to maximize juvenile migration, minimize harm to juveniles, minimize harm to adult migration and protect human life by ensuring safe navigation on the rivers.

He said that previously ordered spills had been helpful for fish and sided with those who said that additional spilling would be safe for fish. There is sufficient scientific support to test additional spills for the benefit of juvenile fish, he said.

Simon is the same judge who last year urged the government to consider breaching the four dams on the Lower Snake River.

An environmental study is in early stages, and in the meantime plaintiffs in the case had asked the judge to halt $37 million in upgrades at Ice Harbor Dam planned for late this year through fall 2019.

This means the court is not only prescribing how the federal dams … should be operated, it also signals its willingness to make decisions on what investments should be made at the Snake dams.

Terry Flores, Northwest RiverPartners

Spending the money could bias the outcome of the study, plaintiffs said.

Simon ruled that potential bias is outweighed by the projects’ immediate benefits of increasing the survival of protected fish.

He also did not approve a requested ban on future lower Snake River Dam projects costing more than $1 million, but said plaintiffs would be notified of future projects and could file requests to stop them.

“This means the court is not only prescribing how the federal dams — which provide 60 percent of the Northwest’s clean energy — should be operated, it also signals its willingness to make decisions on what investments should be made at the Snake dams,” Flores said. “The ruling clearly indicates a preference to remove these projects.”

The dams covered by the ruling include those on the Columbia River up to McNary Dam near Umatilla River and those on the Snake River from Ice Harbor Dam upriver to Lower Granite Dam

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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