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Feds Say Dams Are Working Fine For Columbia Salmon

The federal government today released a new draft of its plan to protect endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.

The federal government today released a new draft of its plan to protect endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.

Aaron Kunz

Not much would change for dam operations on the Columbia River under the federal government’s new draft plan for protecting endangered salmon and steelhead.

The federal government on Monday released its new draft plan, known as the biological opinion or BiOp, has been the subject of legal conflict for more than 20 years among those who want to protect fish and those who want to protect dams.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revised this draft after U.S. District Judge James A. Redden rejected it in 2011. In the latest 751-page document, the agencies stood by their current approach for how the Columbia’s 14 hydroelectric dams should be operated.

“Our finding was that our original analysis was correct, and that it was not necessary to look at additional actions, including additional spill or dam removal,” said Bruce Suzumoto, the head of NOAA’s hydropower division.

Redden had previously suggested extra steps to protect salmon and steelhead, including spilling more water over the dams, removing the Snake River dams altogether, or helping fish passage by changing reservoirs.

Redden is no longer overseeing the Columbia River case, which has been transferred to Judge Michael H Simon.

The Army Corps of Engineers said it would continue spill water over the dams at the same levels it has in recent years. Spilling water over the dams helps juvenile fish pass over the structures instead of through the turbines as they migrate out to sea. The corps is now proposing to stop the spill in August, if certain conditions are met, said Rock Peters, senior program manager with the corps.

Redden said the draft was fine through 2013. After that he said NOAA should write a more thorough version, especially focusing on plans to protect salmon habitat.

NOAA Fisheries will accept public comments on the draft plan until Oct. 7. It will write a final plan by this December.

Terry Flores, whose group Northwest River Partners supports the draft, said the latest version answers Redden’s questions.

“If anything, it goes beyond what the legal requirements are,” said Flores, whose group represents commerce and industry interests. “This particular BiOp … The federal agencies approached it with an eye on helping put the salmon on a road to recovery. They’re not responsible for recovering the species. That’s a different part of the endangered species act.”

Environmental groups said they were not happy with NOAA’s decision to more or less stick with its plan from 2008. Gilly Lyons is with Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.

“What we’re really worried about is that this document is basically a rehashing of previous plans that had already been ruled illegal by a federal district court here in Portland,” Lyons said.