Letters from the West

Oregon, sporting, green groups go back to court on salmon

The same groups that have fought a long legal battle to force changes in the Columbia and Snake River hydrodam system to aid endangered salmon are heading back to court.

The National Wildlife Federation, the state of Oregon and a host of environmental, angling, commercial fishing and renewable energy groups have filed the suit against NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation in U.S. District Court in Portland challenging the latest biological opinion for the federal dams. Essentially they say the opinion, which is the plan for meeting the federal Endangered Species Act, doesn’t do enough to recover endangered salmon and steelhead.

“Federal agencies in the Northwest seem to think they’re above the law and free to ignore what the law requires and what a federal judge ordered in 2011,” said IRU Salmon Program Coordinator Greg Stahl.

Supporters of the federal salmon plan decried the lawsuit and the continuing unwillingness of Oregon, the environmental and sporting groups to join the federal agencies, Washington, Idaho, Montana and most of the Indian tribes in the region in supporting the biological opinion.

“They are hardly being dragged into court,” said Terry Flores, Executive Director of Northwest RiverPartners. “They are the ones bringing the litigation, despite unprecedented support for this latest salmon plan from federal and state agencies and more than a dozen Northwest tribes.”

The lawsuit comes as the abundance of the 13 stocks of salmon in the Snake and Columbia rivers has increased over the past five years and the threat of extinction has dropped, say the federal dam and salmon managers on the Columbia River system. The plan shows how they say operations will avoid jeopardizing salmon and steelhead to meet the order of Simon’s predecessor, Judge James Redden.

The actions they are taking are enough to meet their responsibilities to protect the fish, they say. Those include the surface passage devices dam managers have added to several of the eight dams between Idaho and the Pacific. And it includes the billions of dollars in habitat improvement projects they have funded in tributaries like the Lemhi.

Their five-year plan calls for some reduction in “spill” — the water sent over the dams away from hydroelectric turbines — and for using more barges to haul more fish around the dams for a longer period in the late spring and summer. They make no mention of dam breaching.

The lawsuit says the plan ignores explicit order to consider removing the four lower Snake Dams. Its roll back on spill also is illegal, the suit says as is the plan's lack of attention to the effects of climate change.

The lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of: National Wildlife Federation, Washington Wildlife Federation, Idaho Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Idaho Rivers United, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, American Rivers, International Federation of Fly Fishers, Salmon for All, NW Energy Coalition, and Columbia Riverkeeper.