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Bush administration asking court to block dam spills
SEATTLE - The Bush administration wants a federal appeals court to stop water from being purposely spilled over five Northwest hydroelectric dams despite a lower court's unprecedented order that it was necessary to help young salmon migrating to the Pacific.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was forced to allow substantial flows to bypass energy generating turbines following a June 20 order by U.S. District Judge James Redden of Portland. Redden ruled that the salmon were imperiled when swimming through those dams' turbines as they headed to the sea hundreds of miles away.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was set to hear the administration's demands to overturn Redden on Wednesday in Seattle.
At the request of salmon advocates, fishermen and Indian tribes, Redden ruled that "As currently operated, I find that the dams strongly contributed to the endangerment of the listed species and irreparable injury will result if changes are not made." His order began being carried out June 20, and is to last through Aug. 31.
Environmentalists, who brought the case, said the government hasn't been meeting its obligations to protect the threatened salmon and eventually want to close four dams in southeastern Washington.
The administration says it has a salmon recovery plan in place that is jeopardized by Redden's ruling. The Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the electricity generated by the dams, estimated spilling the water rather than running it through turbines will cost $67 million in lost revenue, which could be saddled on utility customers in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
Redden's ruling targets Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams on the Snake River in southeastern Washington, and McNary Dam on the Columbia River straddling Oregon and Washington. While each dam only kills a small percentage of fish, more than half the spring-summer chinook run from the Snake River end up being killed as they maneuver through all the dams' hydroelectric turbines.
Justice Department Attorney Ellen Durkee told the court in briefs that Redden "took the unprecedented step of judicial micromanagement" and "carelessly tossing aside" a program to divert fish captured in holding tanks at the damns, where they are then trucked or barged to the Columbia River in Oregon.
Todd True, an attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, one of the environmental groups that sued the Bush administration over the salmon, said the transported fish usually survive, but "they don't return like the fish that stay in the rough conditions of the river."
The dams have so-called "fish ladders" that enable them to swim up river passed dams on their return migration.
Redden ordered that about two-thirds of the water that passes the dams to go through spillways instead of running through the dams' electricity generating turbines. That would drop gradually to about half as river levels lowered.
The Bonneville Power Administration estimated the extra spill will amounts to an increase of 4 percent to 5 percent in the wholesale electricity rate of about $32 per megawatt. That would typically amount to an increase of about 2 percent in the rates paid by residential customers, the BPA said.
The case is National Wildlife Federation v. National Marine Fisheries Service, 05-35569.
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM Pacific
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