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Plaintiffs Call For More Court-Ordered Spill At Columbia River Dams


A school of salmon swim through the Bonneville Dam fish ladders.

A school of salmon swim through the Bonneville Dam fish ladders.

Alan Sylvestre/OPB/Earthfix

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit over dams in the Columbia River Basin are asking the court to order federal agencies to spill more water over the dams this spring to help threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead

Conservation groups together with the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe filed a motion in U.S. District Court on Monday.

Todd True, an EarthJustice attorney representing the conservation groups, said new science shows spilling more water over the dams in the spring will improve the survival rate of imperiled fish by helping them reach the ocean.

“So that the baby salmon that are migrating downstream at the time are flushed out in to the ocean and don’t have to go through the turbines and bypass systems and the things that are quite harmful to them,” he said.

Last year, a federal judge rejected the federal plan for managing dams to protect salmon. Federal agencies are now in the process of writing a new plan.

True said the court can order the agencies to do more to help fish in the meantime. Spilling water over the dams reduces the amount of hydropower the agencies can produce.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to order as much spill as the law allows. State laws set limits on how much water can be spilled over dams before the gases produced in the process become harmful to fish.

“What we’re saying is these fish are in such dire straits now that if there’s something we can do that will immediately benefit their survival then we think the court should order the agencies to do that,” True said.

He is hoping the court will rule on the motion by late March when juvenile salmon begin their migration to the ocean. The groups have also asked the court to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from spending money on upgrades to the four lower Snake River dams until the new plan for managing dams is complete. Environmental groups are advocating for those dams to be removed as part of the new plan.

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