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Restoring the Lower Snake River

By Bellamy Pailthorp • Dec 1, 2016

AP 16309737857770 1Salmon art and an orca puppet will parade through Seattle Thursday afternoon. The procession is to attract attention to restoration efforts for wild salmon and steelhead runs on the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

Advocates for endangered fish will hold a rally and then march to Town Hall Seattle, where one of 15 public meetings around the Northwest is taking place, in the wake of a ruling from a U.S. District Court.

In May, Judge Michael Simon ordered federal agencies to take a fresh look at the Columbia River salmon plan. He said despite billions spent on habitat restoration and dam improvement efforts, it isn’t working. The ruling was the fifth time a judge has shot down the plan that guides dam operation and salmon restoration in the Columbia River basin.

Conservationists say it’s time to reconsider the removal of four dams in south-central Washington.

“Because on the Snake River, we have tried everything else. We’ve been at Snake River salmon recovery since the '80s,” said Steve Mashuda.

He’s an attorney with Earthjustice who has been working on the issue for about 16 years. He says people know how to engineer solutions for transportation and power generation, but even with recent improvements for fish passage, the dams are still hurting endangered fish.

“These dams are hindering salmon access to and from the best habitat left in the lower 48 states for these fish. And if we’re going to have them survive and recover, especially in a world where global warming is changing stream temperatures and everything about the salmon’s habitat, we need to open up access,” Mashuda said.  

He says habitat above the dams is in protected federal lands and at high altitudes where climate change will have less impact and waters remain pristine.

But other groups representing public utilities and ports say hydropower is a vital source of renewable energy – which is also needed in the face of global warming. They want more emphasis to be put on things like habitat restoration and hatcheries.  

Terry Flores is with Northwest River Partners. She says the Lower Snake River dams have state of the art fish passage. And there’s concern about the loss of hydropower as a source of electricity that combines well with renewable sources such as wind and solar.

“These dams, Snake River Dams provide over a thousand megawatts of clean, renewable and reliable energy. One of the key attributes of hydropower is because you can store it in large reservoirs, you can release it at a moment’s notice to meet people’s energy needs,” Flores said.

She says the dams also provide benefits such as irrigation and barge transportation for farmers and that more emphasis should be put on things like restoring habitat and improving hatcheries.  But conservation groups   say billions have already been spent on such efforts and the fish are still declining.  

After Seattle, public meetings take place next week in The Dalles, Portland and Astoria, Ore. After that, a draft environmental impact statement is scheduled to be published for public comment in March 2020.

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