This week, a panel of 9th Circuit Court of Appeal judges upheld an Oregon U.S. District Court decision requiring more water to be spilled through hydropower dams, ostensibly to benefit young salmon migrating downstream. While spill advocates rejoice in their victory, the ruling is a blow to Northwest families and businesses who pay the costs for salmon restoration through their electric bills—and, ironically, a threat to the salmon themselves.
It’s time for Congress to step in. Here’s why:
Spilling water at the eight federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers isn’t new. It began as far back as 1989 and over the years has been refined to avoid hurting young salmon. Spill can help salmon, but only if used carefully. Like medicine, the correct dose can make you well; too much can make you sick or kill you.
In contrast to tailored spill, the practice of spilling water at the dams 24 hours a day, 7 days a week—sought by a consortium of fishing and environmental litigants and now upheld by the courts—is an experiment that has never been tried. But there are some things we already know.
- We know 24/7 spill will result in higher levels of gasses being released into the rivers, which can harm or kill young salmon.
- We know it can confuse returning adults and keep them from finding fish ladders at the dams.
- We know the added spill could cost Northwest families and businesses $40 million on average – some years it may cost them more, some less.
- We know the resulting loss of 800 megawatts of carbon-free power generation will add 843,000 metric tons of carbon to Northwest skies.
- And for all of that, we know salmon stand to benefit only a little or not at all, according to scientific modeling by NOAA Fisheries.
Advocates for 24/7 spill claim otherwise, speculating that increased spill will double the numbers of returning adult fish. These dubious projections ignore the myriad threats salmon face throughout their complex lifecycle: degraded habitat in streams where young salmon hatch and adults return to spawn; sport, commercial and tribal harvest; predators like sea lions, which eat as many as 40% of the adult salmon that return to the Columbia River each year; and ocean conditions, the overwhelming factor affecting fish survival.
More spill won’t reduce these threats, but it will make hydropower costlier, which strengthens the case for the litigants’ real goal: removal of the Snake River dams.
Most disturbing, the courts seem to have accepted the anti-dam faction’s soundbites, adopting in their rulings a concern that salmon are in a “precarious” state and will go extinct without added spill. As a result, fish advocates are now dictating federal hydrosystem operations through the judiciary. Yet overall salmon returns have been steadily improving. And if the fish face such peril, why does NOAA Fisheries continue to allow a 45% harvest rate on endangered Fall Chinook?
The time is now for Congress to step in. Thankfully, leaders in the Northwest delegation have done just that by sponsoring H.R. 3144, commonsense legislation aimed at protecting fish and preserving our region’s largest source of affordable, carbon-free power. What’s at stake is no less than the foundation of our regional power system, which provides 60% of the Northwest’s total electric energy and 90% of its carbon-free renewable energy, along with other irreplaceable benefits: flood control, navigation, irrigation, and river commerce.
H.R. 3144 would hit “pause” on 20 years of litigation and allow a court-ordered environmental review process, called NEPA, to be completed. Meanwhile, it keeps in place a 2014 Biological Opinion vetted and supported by two Administrations, Bush and Obama. In recent filings, the litigants themselves ask the court to keep the 2014 BiOp in place, recognizing it helps salmon. Apparently, the 2014 BiOp is acceptable to the litigants, so long as they can continue to “run the river” through the courts.
We applaud the sponsors of H.R. 3144 for their courage and thank the leadership of the U.S. House, who recently announced intentions to advance the bill. It is unequivocally Congress’ role to step in when decisions by another branch of government don’t serve the public interest or distort the laws Congress has passed. Congress authorized the development and operations of the federal hydrosystem and needs its rightful say. We respectfully urge those members of the Northwest delegation who have not yet stepped up to protect the hydro system to do so today.