Court Urged to Invalidate Federal Plan for Upper Snake River Operations

From American Rivers: Declaring 2005 Biological Opinion in Violation of Endangered Species Act Would Force Basin-wide Analysis of Impact of Snake River Dams on Salmon Recovery Portland, OR -- A coalition of fishing businesses and conservation groups today asked a federal district court to declare illegal a federal plan for operating Bureau of Reclamation water storage projects in the Snake River basin in Idaho. Appearing before federal district Judge James A. Redden, the groups argued that the 2005 NOAA Fisheries Biological Opinion of the Bureau's Upper Snake projects violates the Endangered Species Act, permits operation of the upper Snake projects in ways harmful to endangered salmon without considering the cumulative effects of all federal projects in the Columbia/Snake basin, and relies heavily on the illegal 2004 Federal Columbia River Power System Plan (FCRPS), which governs federal dam operations on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers. Calling the upper Snake and FCRPS plans "functionally and geographically linked," the groups also asked the court to require a single, comprehensive assessment of the combined effects of federal water and dam management projects in the Columbia/Snake basin on threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead. Last May, the court ruled the 2004 FCRPS plan illegal, citing its failure to adequately address what is needed to recover ESA-listed Snake River fish, while treating dams as an immutable part of the natural environment. It is currently being redrafted. The groups who brought the action ( American Rivers, Idaho Rivers United, National Wildlife Federation, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and Institute for Fisheries Research - believe they have made a strong argument to the court to invalidate the March 2005 Upper Snake biological opinion, and order its integration into a single, comprehensive plan covering upriver and downriver federal projects. "It doesn't make scientific or economic sense to artificially divide the Snake River when dealing with salmon recovery," said Todd True of Earthjustice, attorney for the coalition of groups. "Neither the illegal downriver salmon plan, nor the current upriver water management plan, which shares many of the same flaws, will recover salmon and steelhead. A favorable ruling by the court in this case would compel the federal agencies to do a comprehensive, credible scientific analysis and evaluation of all potential recovery options. That's what the law requires and what the public deserves in order to understand the tradeoffs needed to protect and restore wild salmon." "Like it or not, this region must ask itself and its leaders what we value more, a reliable water supply for Idaho agriculture and industry, or four costly dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington that have outlived their usefulness," said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, a statewide river conservation organization based in Boise, ID. "We believe salmon can be recovered and agricultural economies can thrive if we examine and invest in solutions across the entire Snake and Columbia river basin that put neither farmers nor fishermen at risk." Scientific studies spanning more than a decade have shown clearly that the most effective strategy for restoring salmon and steelhead in the Columbia/Snake basin includes removing four dams on the lower Snake River, an option that is more likely to lead to recovery than augmenting downstream river flow with upper Snake water. "We want a salmon and steelhead recovery plan that works for people and fish," said Rob Masonis, Senior Director, Northwest Region, for American Rivers, lead plaintiff in the case. "We believe there is a clear path to salmon recovery that does not require redirecting water from Idaho farmland, and it is removing the four destructive dams on the lower Snake River. But so far, our region and our leadership have resisted that option." Glen Spain, Northwest Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), an organization of commercial fishing groups throughout California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, noted that today's hearing comes at a time when fishing businesses and communities throughout the Snake and Columbia river basins in Oregon, Washington and Idaho are facing another year of potentially devastating low salmon returns and resulting fishing closures. "We are here today because the federal government has repeatedly failed to deliver an effective salmon recovery plan, and our elected leaders have failed to step in to fill the void," Spain said. "With salmon returning at record lows and fishing seasons being cancelled, it is clearer than ever that we must change the way we manage this basin. This will enable our region to finally examine - honestly and completely - what it will take to meet our responsibility to restore salmon and steelhead to the Snake River, and in the process, protect and restore the resources, economies, and way of life of the Pacific Salmon states." Historically, returns of wild Snake River spring/summer chinook exceeded 1.5 million annually, accounting for more than half of the entire Columbia Basin's spring/summer chinook run. By the late 1960's, immediately prior to the construction of the lower Snake River dams, returns still topped 100,000 per year. Last year, only about 10,000 of these fish returned past Lower Granite Dam on the lower Snake River. That number is even lower than when Snake River spring/summer chinook were first protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1992. "Clearly, the recovery efforts of the federal government to date have been inadequate, inconsistent, incomplete and even illegal," said Sedivy, "With the thorough analysis that a positive decision from the court would enable, it will become clear that removing those dams is the only recovery approach that works for Idaho, for the region, and for the salmon on which we all depend." The court is expected to issue a ruling in the case by the end of the month.