The U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon has invalidated the federal government’s 10-year operations plan for dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers due to its potential effects on endangered salmon and steelhead.
The Endangered Species Act requires that the three federal agencies that operate 31 hydropower dams in the Columbia Basin do so in a way that does not jeopardize the continued existence of endangered fish species. The three agencies are the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Bureau of Reclamation. The system includes four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington, all of which must be passed by salmon and steelhead during their migrations to and from the Salmon River and Redfish Lake in central Idaho.
On Wednesday, Judge Michael Simon ruled that the 2014 Columbia Basin salmon biological opinion, drawn up by NOAA Fisheries, violates the Endangered Species Act as well as the National Environmental Policy Act.
The court sided with plaintiff fishing businesses, conservation groups, clean energy advocates, the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe in finding the latest federal plan fatally flawed. The court rejected the BiOp inadequate and illegal on several grounds:
l It rejected the plan’s “trending towards recovery” framework that allowed the agencies to conclude that the plan was working “with very little actual improvement in fish abundance.”
l It rejected the plan’s reliance on habitat mitigation measures to make up for the harm caused by the dams.
l It found the government failed to adequately assess the “potentially catastrophic impact” of climate change on the basin’s salmon and steelhead populations.
l It found that the agencies violated NEPA by failing to consider alternatives to the current approaches that have “already cost billions of dollars, yet they are failing.”
The judge ordered a new biological opinion and full NEPA analysis that complies with the law no later than March 1, 2018.
With Wednesday’s ruling, federal courts have found illegal five successive Columbia Basin salmon plans dating to 2003.
“Hundreds of thousands of adult salmon died last summer because of warm water in the Columbia and Snake reservoirs,” said Todd True of Earthjustice, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “The court’s sharp rejection of yet another illegal federal plan for operating the dams on these rivers amplifies the clear warning that management of these dams must change dramatically—and very quickly—if wild salmon are to inhabit these rivers in the future. We need to seriously consider a plan that retires and removes the four lower Snake River dams.”
Michael Milstein, a spokesman for NOAA Fisheries, said the agency is evaluating the complex, 145-page ruling to determine the range of options available to it to comply with the court ruling.
“The U.S. government is disappointed that the court has not agreed with our approach in this long-standing litigation,” the agency said in an emailed statement. “The decision will require time and effort to analyze and fully understand. We sincerely appreciate the region’s unprecedented collaboration and commitment on behalf of salmon, and the important progress that it has produced. We’ll continue our efforts with our partners to protect salmon and steelhead in the basin and work toward their recovery.”