A federal judge has ordered the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to consider removal of dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to protect endangered salmon and steelhead.
U.S. District Court Judge James Redden ruled Tuesday that NOAA had failed to produce a scientifically sound plan to protect the two species from the impacts of the Federal Columbia River Power System.
The system is composed of 14 sets of hydroelectric dams, powerhouses and reservoirs operated by the U.S. Amy Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. The system provides 30 percent of the power consumed by the Pacific Northwest region.
Conservationists have long argued that the dams threaten the status of steelhead and salmon that use the rivers as migration corridors each year, between the ocean and inland spawning grounds.
Redden agreed, ordering the agency to revisit its dam mitigation plans and develop a new report by 2014. He said a 2008 agency report unfairly downplayed the dams' impact on the endangered species.
"[The report] was a cynical and transparent attempt to avoid responsibility for the decline of listed Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead," he wrote. "Irreparable harm will result to listed species as a result of the operation of the [system.]"
Greg Stahl, assistant policy director for Boise-based Idaho Rivers United, said the decision was a victory for salmon and steelhead.
"This is the fourth time that an NOAA biological opinion on salmon and steelhead has been remanded by a federal court," Stahl said. "The status quo is not working for fish."
Redden ordered the agency to develop a plan that "considers whether more aggressive action, such as dam removal" is necessary to protect fish. The decision also requires the agency to continue spilling water to help flush baby fish downstream from rearing habitats to the ocean.
Stahl said the decision is a call to action for politicians.
"We would love to see the politicians in this region get off this merry-go-round and find some lasting legal and scientifically sound solutions [for fish]," he said.
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com