A new agreement aims to boost salmon populations and preserve inexpensive power in hopes of ending a decades-long legal battle over the future of the four lower Snake River dams.
Three federal agencies, including the Bonneville Power Administration, joined Oregon and Washington officials and the Nez Perce Tribe in signing off on a three-year plan filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Portland.
The move creates more flexibility for the federal agency running the dams, allowing them to focus on producing power for the eight hours in the day when it’s most needed, and increase the amount of water heading over the dam during the rest of the day.
The changes will only affect the dam’s operations between April and mid-June when spring Chinook are heading to the ocean.
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This comes on the heels of a court-ordered spill last spring and while the 2019 spill levels will stay the same, the agreement calls for sending more water over the dam in 2020 and 2021.
The agreement aims to help young salmon heading to the ocean while allowing federal officials the ability to be flexible with power production, the administration said.
Collaboration is the key to the managing the Columbia River system, federal and state officials said in a joint news release.
“Working together, the region’s states, tribes and federal agencies have developed an approach that demonstrates environmental stewardship and affordable sustainable energy are not mutually exclusive,” they said.
Alongside the agreement, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Fish and Wildlife are studying the impact the change will make on the environment.
The federal lawsuit will be paused until those studies are finished.
Environmental groups leading the charge in court, represented by Earthjustice, called the agreement a step forward in the continuing battle over the dams, but not the solution for salmon.
“It is a stop-gap measure to help struggling salmon populations for the next three years,” said Todd True, an Earthjustice attorney. “We should ultimately be working toward restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River by removing the four lower Snake River dams.”
The move is not what Reps. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, were looking for either.
In a joint statement, they called the costly plan “worse than useless.”
They pointed out federal scientists haven’t determined whether increasing the amount spilled would help salmon, and in the meantime, it could cost the administration up to $38 million.
“Increasing spill to this unprecedented new level may actually threaten young fish with ‘the bends’ due to the effect of increasing dissolved gasses,” the representatives said in a joint statement. “The purpose of this agreement was to end litigation, but there is no indication that it will even do that.”
Northwest RiverPartners also questioned whether the agreement would really solve the problems faced by salmon in the area. The alliance of farmers, utilities, ports and businesses issued a statement Tuesday.
“We are encouraged that this agreement intends to put a temporary halt to the the ongoing litigation that for so long has ill-served our region,” the organization said. “At the same time, we are concerned about the unprecedented and scientifically unproven levels of new spill being contemplated by the agreement.”
The organization’s leaders are calling on the state to study what the effect of the spill will be before signing off on any changes to existing water quality standards. The standards were put in place to protect salmon and other species, and this could invite more lawsuits if it hurts fish.
Whether this change will actually make a difference in the amount of salmon heading to the ocean depends on which scientific study is used. The competing models show drastically different results from sending more water over the dams.
Without more information about whether this will actually benefit the salmon, increasing the amount of water and dissolved gas in the river is a problem, Northwest RiverPartners said.