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Judge Orders More Water Over Dams to Help NW Salmon

A federal judge will allow $37 million to be spent to improve the Ice Harbor Dam, but the Corps of Engineers will have to give advance notice of future investments. (salmonrecovery/Flickr)
A federal judge will allow $37 million to be spent to improve the Ice Harbor Dam, but the Corps of Engineers will have to give advance notice of future investments. (salmonrecovery/Flickr)
March 29, 2017

SEATTLE – 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.

Liz Hamilton, the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association's executive director, said this decision will help fish in the immediate future.

"We just know that when we use spill to help baby fish get downriver, we get more adults back from that action," she said. "So, whether or not it's a fix remains to be seen, but, what we do know about spill is, it does improve the number of adult returns."

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

Fishing and conservation groups have said 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 Northwest residents supporting dam removal.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA