Judge Won't Hear Plea
by John Trumbo
Oregon's attempt to force federal officials to lower the John Day Dam pool in hopes of giving fish a swifter, safer swim to the Pacific Ocean apparently won't surface in hearings before a federal judge in March.
Judge James Redden announced Friday that he will not consider a motion for an injunction sought by Gov. Ted Kulongoski.
The injunction aimed to drop the John Day Dam pool by five feet -- to the minimum operating level for irrigation and navigation -- when Redden next reviews salmon recovery issues on the Columbia River. The next court session has been moved to early March.
Darryll Olsen, resource economist with the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, said he received the judge's notice late Friday afternoon that the injunction was stricken from the hearing calendar.
"It's being interpreted that Redden isn't ready to talk about injunctive relief yet," Olsen said.
Olsen and representatives of the Benton and Franklin public utility districts and the Umatilla Electric Cooperative told the Tri-City Herald Editorial Board this week that a John Day pool drawdown would be a costly experiment when there is no science to support the theory that swifter water could bring what Oregon projects as a 5 percent increase in juvenile salmon survival.
A half-million acres would be left high and dry, the irrigators say, forcing Oregon and Washington farmers who pump water from the Columbia to lower and extend their pumping station lines.
Congress first would have to authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to permit any lowering of the intakes.
A lower pool also would affect hydroelectric power generation because there would be less water moving through the powerhouses, and it would wipe out the Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge, said Olsen.
Michael Carrier, policy director of Kulongoski's Natural Resources Office, acknowledged there are negative aspects to lowering the pool level, but that the loss of habitat was "artificial wetlands" created when the dam was built.
Barge transportation also would be affected, but the river navigation channel wouldn't be, Carrier insisted.
Oregon officials' biggest concern is fish survival, he said.
Juvenile salmon face a 76-mile run through the John Day pool down river from Hermiston each summer.
Predators such as smallmouth bass and gulls search the river for an easy meal, and survival odds of salmon smolt could be improved by lowering the pool and providing swifter water to move them to the Pacific Ocean, Carrier said.
"We want to reduce travel time in the pool," he said.
Oregon environmental interests first floated the theory that a lowered John Day Dam pool would speed fish to safety 18 years ago. Their contention was revived in 2007 and again rejected. Now Kulongoski and his staff want Redden to include the drawdown in a pending ruling about Columbia River Fish Accords.
Carrier said Oregon is trying again "because we want an injunctive relief to make temporary remedies while the judge sorts this out."
"Oregon's position has always been each of the components -- hydro, habitat, harvest and hatcheries -- should bear a responsibility for the mortality of fish," he added.
Although many of the groups interested in salmon recovery signed onto the accords in 2008, including the states of Montana and Idaho, the Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Yakama, Colville, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Shoshone-Bannock tribes, Carrier said that is not enough. Washington supports the plan but has not signed on.
The Spokane and the Nez Perce tribes have sided with Oregon.
"The accords are aimed at keeping the hydroelectric power generation system harmless. We believe more can be done," Carrier said.
Steve Eldridge, general manager and CEO of the Umatilla Electric Cooperative, said Oregon's push to draw down John Day pool could backfire because the legal argument for the injunction raises issues about hydropower that also could jeopardize the salmon harvest side of the biological opinion.
"The harvest bi-op can't be met without the hydro operation," Eldridge said, adding that Redden has yet to rule whether he will accept the accords with the biological opinions.
"That's the Achilles heel for Oregon in all this. They can't have their fish and eat them, too," said Olsen.
"If the judge said he was putting us on a path to lowering the pool, then we'd give 60-day notice to challenge the harvest bi-op. The rules of engagement have been set," Olsen said.
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