By Courtney Flatt, Northwest Public Radion
It’s back to court for the federal government and salmon advocates. Conservationists Tuesday once again challenged the government’s plan to manage dams on the Columbia River to protect endangered salmon and steelhead.
In January, officials released a finalized plan, known as a biological opinion or BiOp, that guides dam operations. It’s been subject to more than 20 years of legal conflict between people who want to protect salmon and people who want to produce hydroelectricity and maintain shipping channels.
“Welcome to Groundhog Day,” said Todd True, lead attorney for the challengers and Earthjustice.
True said the latest plan is far too similar to previous plans already struck down by the courts.
“We will not let the government slow-walk our wild salmon into extinction and trample our environmental laws, just because they don’t want to change the way they run the Columbia River hydro system,” True said.
Fish advocates said the most recent plan also lessens the amount of water spilled over dams to help juvenile salmon migrate out to sea.
The groups are asking the court to require an environmental impact statement, which would require public comments for a new biological opinion.
“The best way to pursue a real solution for salmon would be to have a collaborative process,” said Sara Patton, executive director for NW Energy Coalition, a clean energy advocacy group.
In 2011, U.S. District Judge James A. Redden rejected the plan and asked the Obama administration to consider more ways to recover the endangered fish.
Redden’s suggestions included spilling more water over the dams to help juvenile salmon safely make it downriver to the ocean, changing reservoirs to help fish passage, and removing the lower Snake River dams altogether.
The case has been transferred to Judge Michael H. Simon. This most recent challenge is a continuation of a lawsuit filed in 2001.
Supporters of the 2014 plan called it the most comprehensive restoration plan in the country. Terry Flores’ group Northwest RiverPartners represents commerce and industry groups that defend dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers. For her part, Flores said the challenge is more of the same from conservation groups.
She said recent high salmon returns show that the current plan is working.
“Litigation doesn’t do anything for fish on the ground. It just drags time and energy away from those kinds of efforts that actually benefit fish and puts us all back into the courtroom,” Flores said.