Our Voice: Judge listens to reason in Snake River dam ruling

Ever since a federal judge told government officials last May they must consider breaching Snake River dams in order to boost salmon runs, an undercurrent of anxiety has been running through our region.

So it was a relief when that same judge, in his latest ruling, showed some deference to the experts who manage the dams.

U.S. Judge Michael Simon said more water must be spilled from dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to help young salmon make it to the ocean. But he also decided the spilling could start next year.

The environmental group, Earthjustice, and the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce wanted the extra water spilled a week after the ruling.

Thankfully, the judge did not go along with that particular goal.

He said spilling so soon would not provide “sufficient time to ensure that the increased spill will not cause unintended negative consequences.”

Instead, the government has a year to prepare and study how best to release the right amount of water without creating strong eddies or other conditions that might endanger the fish.

We hope that buys enough time for dam operators to figure out spill patterns that can provide a balance between helping fish and ensuring safe navigation on the rivers.

Those in favor of breaching the dams also wanted the judge to halt a $37 million upgrade at Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River near Burbank, as well as ban future lower Snake River Dam projects.

Judge Simon declined both requests, which again, is a relief.

He added, though, that the plaintiffs would be notified of future projects and could file requests to stop them — which, given the current trend, is likely to happen.

It is puzzling that anyone who cares about improving salmon runs would oppose dam projects that might help more fish survive. But that is what this looks like.

The plaintiffs wanting to halt the Ice Harbor Dam project said spending money on the upgrade might bias the outcome of the environmental study now under way.

The judge ruled, however, that potential bias is outweighed by the projects’ immediate benefits to helping the protected fish.

It goes to show there are people who want the dams gone right now, regardless of what future improvements could be made to increase salmon.

They are bent on a mission, with little or no consideration to what breaching the dams would do to our power bills and agriculture industry.

Billions of dollars have been spent on improving fish passage. And the federal agencies responsible for operating dams in the Columbia River Basin released a report this year showing that those efforts have turned things around for many species.

Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said a spill test will result in higher electric bills for Northwest families and businesses, but will do little or nothing to help the salmon. Her group includes farmers, utilities, ports and businesses.

In addition, too much spill creates high levels of gas in the water that can hurt juvenile fish. Flores said it can give them “the bends” much like scuba divers sometimes experience.

With all the unknowns, we think studying how best to conduct the spills is a better approach.

At least on this latest ruling, the judge, fortunately, is giving time for that and did not side with the environmental groups on all counts. That is some consolation.