U.S. Offers New Fish Tactics
by Michael Milstein
Salmon - The agencies' plans still emphasize barging and trucking fish;
critics press for more water spilled over dams
Federal agencies have unveiled a new strategy for running the Columbia River hydroelectric dams next year that they say will better protect salmon from being chewed up by dam turbines without driving regional power rates much higher.
The strategy detailed in federal court filings this week still relies heavily on the past method of barging and trucking young salmon around the dams. It also would spill extra water over dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to help fish evade the deadly turbines during limited windows in the spring.
The approach faces an uncertain future, though, because it must survive a testy federal judge who repeatedly has thrown out earlier federal plans for doing too little, too late for the imperiled fish.
It also falls far short of what environmental and fishing groups have requested. They want U.S. District Judge James A. Redden to tell the government to stock up on extra water this winter in reservoirs as far north as Canada and flush the water downstream to boost flows for salmon next spring and summer.
Redden will hear arguments on the competing strategies Dec. 15 in Portland and then rule on how the government should manage the Columbia River system next year.
The decision will affect not only salmon but also regional power supplies and rates. The more water spilled over dams to help salmon, the less that flows through turbines to generate electricity.
Redden's ruling for next year will provide only temporary direction because he has ordered federal agencies to draw up a long-term strategy to better protect salmon from harm caused by the dams. The judge so far has been tough on the federal government for wasting time with failed strategies as the fish continue to struggle.
He said hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River may have to be torn out if Congress and the president do not provide the money and commitment to aid salmon in other ways.
Federal officials said in their filings this week that some fish species do better when barged around dams, while others do better when extra water spilled over the dams carries them downstream. Their strategy for next year uses a combination of the two.
"Our approach is conservative and tries to reduce risk," said Brian Gorman of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Todd True of Earthjustice, who represents the environmental groups pushing for sharper change, said the federal stance offers little improvement. He said it fails to restore more natural river conditions critical to salmon recovery.
"If you put them in a river that's being run to produce power, you're not going to help them," he said. The federal agencies "are saying, 'Maybe if we wave our arms a little bit and say we're doing something, maybe we can fool everybody.' "
The environmental groups are pushing Redden to insist on greater flows down the rivers next spring and summer, with more water spilled over dams. They want the government to ask Canadian authorities to store more water in Canadian reservoirs so it can be poured downstream.
Federal attorneys say the demands are far too extreme and would wreak havoc on the river system, driving up power rates, raising the risk of flooding, exposing archaeological sites to damage and threatening other wildlife.
They say the courts do not have the authority to tell the government to approach Canada for extra water.
Impacts of Proposed Columbia River Operations for 2006 by Federal Action Agencies, 11/23/5
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