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Salmon Need More Spill Over Dams, Judge Rules

Conservation groups say salmon are having a hard time migrating from the Pacific Ocean to Idaho, in part because of four lower Snake River dams. (Andrew E. Russell/Flickr)
Conservation groups say salmon are having a hard time migrating from the Pacific Ocean to Idaho, in part because of four lower Snake River dams. (Andrew E. Russell/Flickr)
March 29, 2017

LEWISTON, Idaho – A federal judge has ordered more water be released from dams on the lower Columbia and Snake rivers to improve survival chances for endangered salmon in the region.

The order came from U.S. District Judge Michael Simon on a motion filed by conservation groups that had support from the State of Oregon and Nez Perce Tribe.

Simon is the same judge who ordered the Corps of Engineers to consider breaching the lower Snake River dams in order to help salmon and steelhead migrate.

Greg Stahl, communications director for Idaho Rivers United, said the goal of the court action was to get immediate help for the dwindling fish populations on the Columbia and Snake.

"While the government is going to spend years trying to figure out what its next steps are going to be to try to solve this, we asked for more spill at the dams to help 'flush' fish over as opposed to through the dams," he explained, "and the judge agreed with us."

Opponents of increasing water over the spillways have said it could affect the amount of hydropower the dams can produce. Water release is scheduled to begin in 2018.

Fishing and conservation groups say they now hope to tackle the issue of whether the dams should be removed altogether.

In the decision, the judge did not grant the plaintiffs' request to halt spending on some improvements to the dams, but the Corps will have to give advance notice of future spending projects. Conservation groups are concerned spending more money on the dams could create a bias toward keeping them in place.

Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda said the region could be a holdout for salmon and steelhead, especially in the face of effects from climate change.

"This is Noah's Ark for salmon, and the only thing that's holding them back from filling that habitat are the impediments posed by the four dams on the Snake River," he explained.

This winter, agencies in charge of the dams requested public input on the Environmental Impact Statement that outlines their plans for protecting salmon. It drew tens of thousands of responses from Northwestern residents supporting dam removal.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ID