By ERIC BARKER of the Tribune
A federal judge approved a plan Tuesday that will spill more water at Snake and Columbia river dams this spring to help juvenile salmon and steelhead reach the ocean.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon at Portland signed off on the plan negotiated by parties to a long-running lawsuit over the dams and the fate of Endangered Species Act-protected anadromous fish runs. Last May, Simon sided with the plaintiffs, which include the state of Oregon, salmon advocates and the Nez Perce Tribe, and ordered the federal government to increase the amount of water spilled at the dams.
However, Simon delayed implementation until this spring to give the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power produced at them, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is in charge of ensuring salmon and steelhead protected, time to negotiate with the plaintiffs and work out the specific details.
According to his order, the government will spill enough water to bump up against gas saturation standards established by the states of Oregon and Washington. It will start April 3 and last until June 20.
According to some studies, spilling water at the dams increases river speeds and decreases travel time for juvenile fish heading to the ocean. It also results in fewer of them passing the dams through turbines or through fish bypass systems that are made up of a series of pipes and screens and funnel the fish through and around the dams.
Studies by the federal Fish Passage Center have shown that fish that pass the dams by following flows over spillways survive and return at a higher rate than fish that go through turbines or fish bypass systems.
Salmon advocates said the order meets their expectations and predicted fish and anglers will reap the benefits.
"We are really heartened and encouraged that we are going to get some help to the fish this migration season and grateful the federal agencies finally came to agreement on it," said Sam Mace of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition at Spokane.
A spokesperson for industries that rely on the dams for power generation said the spill plan will cost millions of dollars in lost power generation and provide scant benefits to the fish.
Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest River Partners, said spilling water takes $40 million worth of potential power off of the grid and only increases fish survival by a few percentage points.
"We are all for spending dollars that will help restore these listed stocks, but we don't think this latest spill operation will provide any added benefits based on the science in front of us," she said. "Obviously the court thinks otherwise."
Although the plan sets specific spill standards, it also includes an adaptive management provision that allows dam and fish managers to reduce spill in the event of unintended consequences such as the turbulence below the dams making it more difficult for adult salmon and steelhead to find fish ladders.