LEWISTON – A coalition of environmental groups will ask a federal judge to order dams on the lower Snake River to be breached as a necessary step to prevent the extinction of endangered sockeye salmon that spawn in central Idaho.
The Columbia Riverkeeper, Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Conservation League and the Northwest Sport Fishing Alliance earlier this month filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the Army Corps of Engineers.
The salmon advocates say the four dams, by impounding the river, cause it to overheat just as adult sockeye salmon are migrating upstream in an effort to reach large lakes in the shadow of the Sawtooth Mountains.
During a brutally hot summer in 2015, a promising return of sockeye was all but wiped out.
Thousands of fish died in the reservoirs of the Snake and Columbia rivers.
This year, Snake River sockeye detections at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River are as high as they have been since 2012.
But the Columbia and Snake rivers are experiencing below-average flows this summer and water temperatures that are above average. When water reaches into the low 70s, it can be harmful and even lethal to salmonids.
“If we look back at the last five to 10 years of (sockeye) survival, we’ve had bad years and we have had terrible years,” said Miles Johnson, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper. “If we continue to have terrible years like 2021 and 2015, this species is not going to be around very much longer.”
Environmental groups, along with the Nez Perce Tribe and the state of Oregon, have long challenged the Corps and its sister agencies over plans that govern operation of the Snake and Columbia river hydrosystem.
Lawsuits filed by those entities, which largely have been successful, have argued the federal government is not doing enough to ensure the survival and recovery of Snake River sockeye as well as threatened runs of wild spring chinook, steelhead and fall chinook that spawn in the basin.
But this will be the first time the groups will ask a judge to order the dams to be breached.
Many who follow Snake River salmon recovery believe the dams can only be removed by an act of Congress. Johnson said there is precedent in favor of a court order to breach.
He points to the U.S. Supreme Court case Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill.
The TVA, much like the Bonneville Power Administration, markets power produced by federal dams.
In the late 1960s, Congress authorized and funded the agency to construct Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River.
But the stream is critical habitat for the endangered snail darter, a tiny fish, that would have been wiped out by the dam.
Hiram Hill sued to stop the project, arguing it was illegal under the Endangered Species Act that was passed and signed into law in 1973.
The court ruled even though Congress authorized and funded construction of the dam, the project was not exempt from the act.
The project was stopped. Johnson said that logic applies to the Snake River dams.
If a court did order the dams to come out, it might not be the last word on the issue.
In 1978, Congress amended the ESA to create the so-called God Squad in which a collection of presidential cabinet members can vote to exempt projects from the ESA.
“I think that has never really been in doubt even though the Corps and others like to pretend they are somehow exempt from the Endangered Species Act,” Johnson said. “I realize what a court can do and what a court might do are two different questions, but all the science points to Snake River sockeye being at high risk of extinction and conditions getting worse.”
Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest River Partners, pushed back on the idea that dams are responsible for elevated river temperatures.
He said the temperature of the lower Snake River and the Salmon River, upstream of the dams, often exceeds levels deemed to be safe for fish.
“When you look at that and see these groups blaming the dams for river temperatures that are already in excess of what they say is safe, to me it’s just looking for another excuse to get rid of dams.”
Removing the dams would help salmon and steelhead by restoring the river to its free-flowing state and boosting survival of adult and juvenile salmon and steelhead as much as fourfold, according to some scientific studies.
Recovered salmon populations would honor treaty rights held by the Nez Perce and other tribes.
It would also protect and significantly boost the region’s sport fishing economy and an important source of marine-derived nutrients in mountain streams where salmon spawn.
But breaching carries downsides as well.
Hydroelectric turbines at the dams produce about 1,000 average megawatts of electricity.
The dams also allow farmers to efficiently move wheat from north-central Idaho and southeastern Washington to downriver ports, and for growers near to the Tri-Cities to effectively withdraw irrigation water from the river.
Tribes, conservation organizations and fishing groups have been pushing for the dams to come out for about three decades.
That effort has gained some momentum in the past few years.
In 2019, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, unveiled his $33.5 billion concept that would breach the dams and mitigate affected communities and industries.
Washington, under legislation sought by Gov. Jay Inslee, is studying how to replace the services the dams provide.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the dams must be breached if salmon and steelhead are to be recovered to healthy and harvestable levels.
Dam supporters have pushed back against the momentum. Last spring, Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse of eastern and central Washington introduced legislation to preserve the dams.
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