Judge Rules Removal of Dams
by John Trumbo
PORTLAND -- A federal judge's insistence Tuesday that removing Snake River dams must be a backup plan for saving endangered salmon in the Pacific Northwest brought strong criticism from water user groups.
Portland-based Judge James Redden called for the dams removal just days after the one-year anniversary of the Columbia River Fish Accords -- an agreement to spend $10 billion over 10 years for fish habitat restoration and fish passage improvements.
Basically, it established a truce in the years-long court battles about endangered salmon, ushering in a new era of collaboration.
"Federal law doesn't allow dam removal and no Democrat-politician-turned-activist-judge can rewrite the law. Only Congress has the authority to authorize dam removal and ... I'll do everything in my power to stop any such extreme action," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
Representatives of the six tribes, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Bonneville Power Administration and other signers of the Accords met two weeks ago near a sacred tribal site on the Columbia River to celebrate the anniversary of the historic agreement.
Darryll Olsen, of the Pacific Northwest Project, a Kennewick consulting firm specializing in water, energy and natural resources, said the CRF Accords gave false hope, and the judge's letter proves it.
"What (Judge Redden) is doing is trying to position the hydropower system for perpetual blackmail. It's all about money. The position he's taken totally ignores the science and economics of water management," Olsen said.
"There will be no fish benefits with more money. The hydro system is largely optimized," he said.
Northwest River Partners Northwest, a Portland-based group, expressed dismay at the judge's letter.
"We are deeply disappointed in Judge Redden's latest reaction to the Federal Biological Opinion on Columbia and Snake River hydro operations, especially since he noted in court that the BiOp was 'very close' in March," wrote Terry Flores, executive director of the group.
"For the first time in two decades the region has more consensus on salmon recovery because Northwest states and federal agencies and tribes developed this biological opinion collaboratively," Flores said.
"Dam removal should not be put back on the table in any form, not even as a contingency plan. Only after the last Administration took dam removal off the table did the region see an unprecedented level of collaboration and agreement that brought together all federal agencies, three states and the major Indian tribes," Hastings said in his statement Tuesday.
"If (the judge) gets this into the new (biological opinion), then the people who need to be satisfied are the people who are getting the money. Basically, the tribes," Olsen said.
President George W. Bush made it clear the Snake River dams would not be bargaining chips. They generate enough electricity to power Seattle, and provide Lewiston, Idaho, with a port for barging valuable cargoes of grain 140 miles down the river.
But it's a new administration, and Redden's letter to parties in the long-running litigation made it clear that he was ready to find substantial shortcomings in the biological opinion for salmon recovery.
"Federal defendants have spent the better part of the last decade treading water and avoiding their obligations under the Endangered Species Act," the judge wrote. "Only recently have they begun to commit the kind of financial and political capital necessary to save these threatened and endangered species, some of which are on the brink of extinction. We simply cannot afford to waste another decade."
The government must develop a contingency plan to study "specific, alternative hydro actions, such as flow augmentation and/or reservoir drawdowns," the judge wrote, "as well as what it will take to breach the lower Snake River dams if all other measures fail."
Redden's letter signals that yet another federal salmon recovery plan is on its way to getting tossed out by the courts.
"This is a significant development in the case, because it indicates to the new administration that they have a significant problem to solve in order to come up with a plan that will protect these species and all the people that depend on them," said Todd True, attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice.
"We believe that a serious look at the science and the options we have for bringing the fish back will lead to the conclusion that removing dams on the lower Snake River is a critical step that we should stop dancing around and start dealing with."
Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, said the agency could not comment on the judge's letter before reviewing it. But he said government scientists believe they can bring salmon populations back without breaching the dams.
"I don't think anyone argues that conditions in there for fish would be improved if there were no dams, but what we have argued in this biological opinion is that we can get to where we need to go without breaching the dams," he said.
Hastings said: "Instead of moving forward with a plan supported by nearly all parties involved, the judge has chosen to fight for the interests of dam removal extremists who are funding the lawsuit."
The U.S. Justice Department this month requested a delay of as long as two months in the court case to "more fully understand all aspects" of the plan. Redden said his letter was intended as a guide to what issues he thinks need looking at.
Government scientists "improperly rely on speculative, uncertain and unidentified tributary and estuary habitat improvement actions to find that threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead are, in fact, trending toward recovery," he said.
"All of us know that aggressive action is necessary to save this vital resource, and now is the time to make that happen," the judge said.
Flores noted that removing four lower Snake River dams would add 5.4 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere annually -- not counting the emissions from thousands of trucks that would be required to move agricultural and other products now shipped by barge down the rivers.
Download Judge Redden's letter