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Snake River dam projects may be delayed

In this 2013 aerial file photo, the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River is seen near Pasco, Wash. (Bob Brawdy / Associated Press)
In this 2013 aerial file photo, the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River is seen near Pasco, Wash. (Bob Brawdy / Associated Press)
By Eric Barker Lewiston Tribune

Salmon advocates are asking a judge to bar the federal government from making substantial investments to Snake River dams until a five-year review of the hydro system is complete.

In a motion for injunctive relief, the National Wildlife Federation and a coalition of other environmental groups asked U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon of Portland to prevent the government from implementing 11 projects costing more than $110 million. The list of projects includes actions that are designed to extend the life of the dams, such as replacing decades-old hydroelectric turbines.

The document argues the federal government’s investment in upgrades at the same time it is undertaking a court-ordered review of the Snake and Columbia river hydropower system, which could result in dam breaching to save threatened and endangered fish, amounts to stacking the deck. The plaintiffs reason that if the government is allowed to proceed with the projects, it will be far less likely to choose a breaching alternative that would result in the invested money being wasted.

“Spending more than a hundred million dollars on federal dams that won’t be there if we take appropriate measures to restore wild salmon doesn’t make sense,” said Kevin Lewis of Idaho Rivers United at Boise. “These kind of investments should be suspended to ensure a level playing field for all of the alternatives agencies must consider, including the alternative of lower Snake River dam removal.”

The salmon advocates and the state of Oregon also asked Simon to order an increase in the amount of water that must be spilled at Snake and Columbia river dams to help juvenile fish on their migrating to the ocean. The Nez Perce Tribe filed a motion in support of the request for more spill.

Bruce Henrickson, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Walla Walla, declined to comment on the legal action, saying the agency doesn’t comment on active litigation.

In May, Simon rejected a 2014 biological opinion issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service that said a combination of actions, which include changes in dam operations, habitat improvement projects in spawning areas, hatchery and harvest reform, would be enough to prevent the wild salmon and steelhead from going extinct. It was the fifth time a federal judge rejected the government’s plans to reconcile dam operations with the needs of the fish.

In his ruling Simon also ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to subject the operation of the Snake and Columbia river hydropower system to a review under the National Environmental Policy Act. That process began this fall and is expected to take five years to complete.

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