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Is Snake River Dam Removal Back?

This week's court ruling suggests another look be taken at saving Northwest salmon by breaching dams.

By New West Editor, 8-03-11

  A coho fry. Photo by Paul Kaiser, USFWS.
  A coho fry. Photo by Paul Kaiser, USFWS.

When a federal district court judge ruled on Tuesday that a plan to protect populations of Northwest salmon and steelhead did not meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, the possibility of hydroelectric dam removal on the Snake and Columbia Rivers was resurrected. But that doesn’t mean it is more than just a possibility.

Central Idaho contains the largest and best-protected contiguous salmon habitat remaining in the continental United States. Conservationists long have lobbied for removal of four dams on the lower Snake River that salmon must traverse on their journey to the ocean, and Judge James Redden’s decision gives them renewed hope, however slim.

For the third time in just over a decade, Redden sent the National Marine Fisheries Services of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries) back to the drawing board. He called the agency’s breach of ESA rules “arbitrary and capricious,” a narrow legal definition that does not allow courts to substitute their judgment for that of a federal agency, even when the best available science is weak. Redden’s ruling explains that arbitrary and capricious means the explanation given by NOAA Fisheries for its plan was “so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise.”

The judge wrote, “NOAA Fisheries improperly relies on habitat mitigation measures that are neither reasonably specific nor reasonably certain to occur, and in some cases not even identified.”

He specified that the agency’s plans through 2013 to protect the fish were adequately explained, but not for 2014 through 2018. He gave the agency until January 1, 2014 to flesh out the mitigation plan for the next years, including an examination of the possibility of dam removal.

Even so, not everyone thinks breaching dams—particularly four along the Snake River—is really an option back on the table now.

In Boise, The Idaho Statesman’s take was that “Dam breaching remains an option — but no closer to reality — after more than a decade of litigation.”

Darrell Olsen of the Columbia Snake River Irrigators Association was more adamant. “Dam breaching has been an empty threat since 1994,” he told the Tri-City Herald. “At the end of the day, there’s no money in dam breaching, nor are there any more fish,” he declared. “I don’t view this as a favorable ruling for hydropower or rate-payers.”

Steve Mashuda, one of the lawyers who represented conservation groups, told The Oregonian,“We’re delighted. We need to use the next two years to figure out a new approach, with every stakeholder in the region at the table.”

Terry Flores, executive director of a group called Northwest River Partners that brings together utilities, ports, and farmers, was disappointed. “This is the most scientifically sound and vetted and collaborative and frankly, expensive, biological opinion that we’re aware of,” he told The Oregonian. “It seems as though the judge is letting the perfect get in the way of the very, very good.”

Redden’s ruling was at times scathing. He wrote that in 2000, when he remand a salmon management plan, called a biological opinion or BiOp, he similarly instructed NOAA Fisheries to ensure that a mitigation plan would occur. Instead, the agency abandoned the BiOp, altered its analytical framework, and produced a new BiOp, which the judge labeled a “cynical and transparent attempt to avoid responsibility for the decline of listed Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead.”

The current plan promises habitat improvements that it predicts will cause growth in salmon populations, but Redden wrote that such predictions had no validity when habitat mitigation measures were not identified beyond 2013.

In an editorial, the Seattle Times said, “Redden has seen and heard it all over the years, and the frustration shows. The judge can tick off the excuses and stalls, from no plans, no water, no money, dams do not count and farmed fish count as wild.”

In Spokane, The Examiner warned that dam removal could mean higher electricity costs, while Science Magazine declared, “The case has long been considered a high-stakes test of how far the federal Endangered Species Act can require changes to modern society aimed at ensuring the continued viability of species considered iconic.”


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