"We're running out of time," the judge said from the bench. "This time we're going to do it."
Salmon stocks in the Columbia and Snake rivers have plummeted since the early 1970's when four dams on the lower Snake River were completed. These dams created a series of still water reservoirs that trap and kill juvenile salmon attempting to migrate to sea. They also take a toll on adults returning to rivers and streams in Idaho to spawn.
While each dam only kills a small percentage of fish, more than half of the spring-summer chinook run from the Snake River ends up being killed as they maneuver through all the dams' reservoirs and hydroelectric turbines. During the spring of 2005 the sport and commercial fishery for spring run Chinook was shut down after dismally low numbers of adult fish returned to the rivers to spawn.
The judge made the ruling in a case brought by Earthjustice on behalf of a number of conservation, fishing and tribal groups.
"We think that the salmon and the people who depend on them in this region have waited too long for a plan that complies with the law," said Earthjustice attorney Todd True.
The judge's order followed a ruling last spring that forced the federal dam operators to release water downstream this past summer to assist the migration of young salmon to the ocean. This was the second year in a row that Earthjustice attorneys succeeded in getting court-ordered summer water releases to keep the salmon fishery alive. A preliminary study by a federal fish monitoring service has indicated that during the time extra water was being released, a much higher percentage of juvenile fish survived the migration through the dams.