Scope of Spills for Fish Awaits Rulingby Michael Milstein
The Oregonian, December 16, 2005
Interests from one end of the Columbia River to the other packed a Portland courtroom Thursday to debate what sort of Band-Aid should be applied to the river's troubled salmon runs next year.
U.S. District Judge James A. Redden told them he may order the government to forgo water for power production and instead spill it over hydroelectric dams to help salmon reach the sea, just as he ordered last summer.
But he said he probably would not go as far as environmental, fishing groups and some tribes wanted. They had urged him to order extra water held in reservoirs early in the year and released later to boost river flows and flush young fish downstream even faster.
"I am still concerned about a judge or any judge going that far, and I don't think I will," Redden said to the standing-room-only crowd of lawyers and others representing tribes, environmental groups, fishermen, utilities and government agencies.
The step is the latest in a legal case that promises to redefine the operations of Columbia and Snake River dams to aid the region's famed but failing salmon populations.
Redden earlier this year told federal agencies they were not doing enough to restore healthy salmon runs and threw out their strategy to deal with harm caused by dams. He ordered government agencies to work with states and tribes to draft a more effective approach.
That process is just beginning. Government attorneys reported "extraordinary" progress so far. But tribes said only preliminary work has been done.
Redden said Thursday that he was encouraged by the initial talks. Environmental and fishing groups, and tribes wanted Redden in the meantime to order extra water over the dams and down the river in 2006. Thursday's hearing was held to discuss their request. Although Redden hinted at his decision, he said a formal ruling would follow in coming weeks.
Though he said he probably would not direct more water down the river, he said he wants the negotiations to consider that.
He had ordered extra water spilled over dams last summer, as environmental groups had urged at the time.
The point is controversial because water spilled over the dams does not flow through hydroelectric turbines, so less power is generated. That reduces the amount of electricity available to the region and for sale to other states such as California.
The Bonneville Power Administration estimated that the spilling of water last year cost about $75 million, including lost sales of power. A court order to release more water from reservoirs to raise the river's flow might drive costs hundreds of millions of dollars higher.
"I don't think there's anyone in the Northwest who wouldn't be affected by something like that," said Steve Wright, BPA administrator.
Environmental groups and tribes cited findings from the federal Fish Passage Center that more young salmon survived their trip downstream with the extra water flowing over the dams. But federal attorneys argued the only true measure of success is the number of the fish that return upriver as adults to spawn.
They contended that a federal plan involving extra water, and barging and trucking of young salmon around the dams, would be better for salmon than the approached advanced by environmental groups.
Those on opposing sides of the issue praised Redden's careful handling of the complicated case that involves several states and many opposing interests. The judge recently toured a dam on the Snake River to view facilities designed to assist salmon.
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