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Commentaries and editorials

This Case is About
Saving a Species

by Editors
Idaho State Journal, July 21, 2005

U.S. District Judge James Redden is an activist judge, in the view of the federal government, because he ordered water to be spilled over five Northwest hydroelectric dams in order to help young salmon migrating to the Pacific.

Justice Department attorney Ellen Durkee argued on appeal that "what the court has ordered is an untested experiment ... Judge Redden is micromanaging the Columbia power system for the first time." The government wants the appeals court to stop the water from being spilled, arguing the electricity not generated by the dams as a result will cost $67 million in revenue.

But this case is not just about energy; it is a test of the Environmental Protection Act.

Here's what Redden said in his opinion: "As currently operated, I find the dams strongly contributed to the endangerment of the listed species and irreparable injury will result if changes are not made."

His order is being carried out and is to last through Aug. 31. It affects 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 kills only a small percentage of fish heading downstream, more than half the spring-summer chinook run from the Snake River ends up being destroyed as the fish pass through all the dams' turbines.

If fish advocates are right, spilling the water means chances are hugely enhanced for a return of adult salmon to Idaho, among other places. Sadly enough, spilling water over the dams is no guarantee of success in preserving salmon stocks.

Billions of dollars have been spent on recovery efforts, with the federal government shelling out roughly $600 million each year, much of it to improve habitat and fish returns. Spring chinook returns on the Columbia have fluctuated wildly, from a recent low of 10,194 fish in 1995 to a high of more than 390,000 in 2001, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Other factors besides the lethal turbines in the dams may be to blame, but that only emphasizes the need to adopt every strategy to save the fish. If spilling works, even for the abbreviated period ordered by Judge Redden, it could result in a significant increase in adult fish returning from their spawning grounds to inland rivers. And that means big dollars to Idaho's economy, among others.

As for Judge Redden, his job is to make decisions when disputes arise. In this case, he decided against the federal government - but on the basis of facts, not some aberrant judicial philosophy. Until this year's crop of smolts returns as adult fish, we may not know if it was the right decision, but one thing is certain: We have to stave off extinction of the species, which would be a disaster dwarfing the cost of a few megawatts of electricity now.

This Case is About Saving a Species
Idaho State Journal, July 21, 2005

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