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Columbia River salmon plan challenged

Conservation groups and fishing interests have challenged the federal government’s latest plan for making Columbia River dams safe for salmon runs.

The complaint was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Portland against NOAA Fisheries Service, which oversees salmon protection, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operate the dams.

Joseph Bogaard of Save Our Wild Salmon says the plan is “virtually indistinguishable” from the one overturned by a federal court three years ago. He says efforts to develop a better plan through collaboration, rather than litigation, were rebuffed.

The agencies had no immediate comment.

The latest plan says that improvements to federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, along with habitat restoration, are benefiting endangered salmon and steelhead. The plan also calls for cutting back on spilling water over the dams to aid fish migration, which results in lost power generation.

The plan, required by the U.S. Endangered Species Act and known as a biological opinion, is the fifth filed by the government since Columbia Basin salmon were added to the endangered species list in the 1990s. It balances the protection of endangered salmon against the operation of the hydroelectric dams, which provide much of the power used in the Northwest. It acknowledges that the dams imperil endangered salmon, but it offers actions to make up for the losses. Four previous plans have been rejected by a federal judge.

Conservation groups said that spills and high runoff years are responsible for the recent record returns of salmon and steelhead to the Columbia Basin.

“We will not let the government slow-walk our wild salmon into extinction and trample our environmental laws just because they don’t want to change the way they like to run the Columbia River hydro system,” said Todd True of Earthjustice, which filed the complaint on behalf of the environmental groups and sport and commercial fishing organizations.

More water could be spilled over the dams without significant impacts to Northwest ratepayers, said Sara Patton, executive director for the NW Energy Coalition, one of the groups filing the complaint. Spilling enough water to power a city the size of Seattle would lead to a modest increase in the per-kilowatt cost of electricity, but that cost would be offset by the region’s aggressive energy efficiency standards, which would lower electrical use, Patton said.

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