By Joel Connelly, SeattlePI
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has sided with salmon and steelhead on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, ruling that federal agencies must spill water over dams so young fish can migrate downstream to the Pacific Ocean.
Approval of the spring "fish flush" comes despite ongoing bureaucratic resistance by the federal Bonneville Power Administration. The BPA loses revenue when water is spilled rather than generating electricity, as the late Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus once put it, "so Californians can heat their hot tubs."
The Columbia-Snake River system has been object of a Northwest version of Europe's "30 Years War." The fight has been over how much water goes to restoring once-great, now decimated salmon runs of the region's greatest river system.
The decades long battle has pitted sport and commercial fisheries and conservation groups, along with the state of Oregon, against federal agencies, agribusiness interests, ports and utilities.
The latest in a series of federal plans for managing river resources -- the 2014 Federal Columbia River Biological Opinion -- has been fought over in federal court.
U.S. District Judge Michael Simon ruled last spring that the Biological Opinion doesn't do enough to restore endangered salmon and steelhead runs. He ruled that federal managers must allow more water to follow over dams between April and mid-June.
"The district court properly concluded that the listed species remain in a 'precarious' state, and that they will remain in such a state without further conservation efforts beyond those included in the 2014 Biological Opinion," the 9th Circuit ruled Monday.
The spill battle has spilled over into politics.
A trio of Republican U.S. House members -- Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Dan Newhouse and Jaime Herrera Beutler -- have tried to slip provision into an appropriations bill that would overturn Judge Simon's ruling and reduce the "forced spill." (A major salmon fishing port, Ilwaco, is in Herrera Beutler's district.)
But Gov. Jay Inslee has opposed them, warning in a letter to Congress: "I am committed to preserving the benefits of our hydroelectric dams in a manner that is in balance with protecting and restoring salmon."
Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., were "implored" by the three Republicans to help curb the "forced spill order." They've even warned that increased spill puts large rocks in dam spillways.
The public, however, has a warm spot in its heart for salmon swimming in the region's cold waters. The Northwest author Timothy Egan coined a memorable phrase: "The Northwest is defined as any place where a salmon can swim."
A new survey, done for conservation groups by a firm headed by Democratic pollster Paul Maslin (who polls for Sen. Murray) found nearly four out of five Washington voters feel it is "very important" to prevent extinction of wild salmon.
A few years ago, resource groups sponsored a survey by Portland-based Moore Information, the region's leading Republican pollster. They were embarrassed at results showing willingness to support salmon recovery even if it costs. Three copies were leaked to a newspaper reporter before the utilities, barge operators and irrigation interests could put a spin on its findings.
The 9th Circuit decision was greeted with glee by conservation and fisheries groups.
"Today's decision is just the most recent of many court orders that try to ensure federal rover management agencies in the Columbia Basin protect and restore wild salmon," said Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation, lead plaintiff in challenging the feds' latest plan.
"All these decisions have been clear -- the status quo isn't working and the fish deserve better. The time is now for federal agencies to follow the law."
Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said: "The court recognized the obvious benefits to salmon of running the river like a river should, with increased flows over the spillway that help get young salmon past the turbines and out to sea safely."
The 9th Circuit ruling means that the "Fish Flush" will begin April 3 for dams on the Snake River, and April 10 for dams on the Columbia River.
What does it mean? Before dams were built, spring runoff would carry young salmon to the ocean in five days. By turning rivers into reservoirs, the passage time has increased to as much as 30 days, decimating the number of smolts that successfully make it to sea.