The order from U.S. District Judge Michael Simon came in response to a motion filed by conservation groups together with the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe.
The groups represent the plaintiffs in a longstanding lawsuit over dams in the Columbia River Basin. Last year, Judge Simon rejected the federal plan for managing dams to protect salmon. Federal agencies are now in the process of writing a new plan.
The plaintiffs had asked the court to order as much spill as the law allows starting in April. State laws set limits on how much water can be spilled over dams before the gases produced in the process become harmful to fish.
In his response, released Monday, Simon said the federal agencies need time to test the effects of additional spill to avoid unintended consequences. He delayed the court order for increasing spill until the spring of 2018 to allow the agencies to test out spill options and develop tailored plans for individual dams. The court plans to confer the next year with the agencies’ on their plan for increasing spill.
Todd True, an EarthJustice attorney representing 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.
“While we recognize that this relief will not eliminate the harm to salmon and steelhead from dam operations in the long run, we are encouraged that increased spring spill will be granted to reduce irreparable harm to juvenile salmon and steelhead,” True said in a statement about the ruling.
Spilling water over the dams reduces the amount of hydropower the agencies can produce.
Terry Flores, director of Northwest RiverPartners, represents ports, farms and utilities that rely on dam operations. She said the spill requested by the plaintiffs would have cost $40 million, which represents a 2 percent increase in customers’ electric bills. Flores said she’s worried her group “won’t get a fair shake” from the court in the larger case over dam management.
“We’re just very concerned that his judge believes that simply more spill is better,” she said. “We do know that some spill can be very good for fish, but too much spill can really harm fish or kill them.”
Flores points to studies showing young fish migrating though the dams can be exposed to too much gas and suffer from a condition similar to the bends. She said adult fish can have trouble finding the fish ladders that allow them to swim past the dams when there’s a lot of spill.
The plaintiffs 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 federal dam management plan.
Judge Simon did not grant their request to halt spending on all future upgrades, but he did tell the Corps to provide the court with advance notice of planned projects so the plaintiffs can seek injunctions in the future.
Flores said that decision raises concerns for her group as well because it shows the court is “willing to immerse itself in decisions relating to what sorts of investments should be made at the Snake River dams.”
She said those decisions are supposed to be made by Congress.