Broad Coalition Sues Feds over Salmon
A broad coalition of conservation, fishing, and business groups filed a major Endangered Species Act lawsuit to save Columbia and Snake River salmon from extinction. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, Oregon, challenges the new federal plan for operation of Columbia and Snake dams. The groups claim that federal mismanagement is driving salmon to extinction and causing irreparable harm to the Northwest.
"The continuing salmon emergency is hurting people, communities, and economies," said Tim Stearns, Northwest regional director of the National Wildlife Federation. "Federal agencies managing the Columbia and Snake Rivers should be steering us out of this mess. Instead they are making it worse. Their new salmon plan is weak on science and full of risk for salmon. Weak as it is, they've tossed even it aside in operating the rivers this year. And the Administration's budget for 2002 totally fails to fund the new plan."
The lawsuit charges that the Biological Opinion for operation of federal dams in the Columbia and Snake Rivers, issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service in December, contains fundamental scientific and legal flaws which keep Columbia and Snake salmon on the path to extinction. The Bonneville Power Administration revealed one of those flaws with its recent decisions to stop salmon spills: the agencies have broad latitude to ignore what the new plan requires them to do for salmon.
"In a couple of paragraphs, the plan essentially issues a license to BPA to ignore the rest of the plan, and wipe out endangered salmon if they deem it necessary," said Jeff Curtis of Trout Unlimited. "There is no standard, no definition, no accountability, no limits; and certainly no thought to legal protection of salmon. These agencies need to stop the extinction clock, not make it run faster." Last week, Trout Unlimited released a scientific study forecasting that Snake River wild spring chinook salmon may be extinct by 2016 unless conditions change.
The new federal plan calls for more water in the Snake and Columbia Rivers for young salmon migrating to the ocean, and it requires spilling water over dams so fewer fish are run through deadly turbines and bypass systems. But due to this year's energy demands, low rainfall, and financial problems, BPA officials invoked vague "emergency" clauses, which contain no standards to define "emergency", to abandon these salmon protections. Huge losses of young salmon -- up to 95%, according to salmon biologists -- are expected as a result.
Throughout this year's energy shortage, salmon advocates have insisted that reliable, affordable energy, and salmon recovery, can and must go hand-in-hand. To ensure both, energy conservation, clean renewable energy such as wind power, and aggressive water purchases or leases are key building blocks.
"Drought and an energy shortage don't justify abandoning bare bones salmon protections," said Bill Arthur of the Sierra Club. "BPA could, and still can, go all out to buy or lease more water to increase river flows. The administration could, and still can, exert some control over the wholesale energy casino. The so-called 'choice' between energy and salmon is a federal management failure, not an act of God. This agency which has decided to abandon salmon this year is the same agency which has in the last 10 years abandoned the world leadership in energy conservation which the Northwest once had."
The lawsuit contends that the federal plan ignores and minimizes a consensus of scientific findings, including those of federal agencies, on salmon recovery. Plaintiffs also contend the plan relies too much on state and private decisions that are beyond federal control and thus may not occur. Federal actions may not occur either, since the Bush Administration's 2002 budget barely maintains salmon funding, even though the new plan requires at least doubling those funds if it is to be implemented.
"The plan's burdens are not equitable," said Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. "Dead salmon and loss of salmon jobs are certain, but the recovery measures are a `maybe'. Our industry and businesses need a salmon recovery plan that is real, fair, and certain. This plan is none of those; that's why we've joined this lawsuit."
Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, of Seattle, and Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center, of Portland, represent plaintiffs in the suit. Todd True, lead attorney from Earthjustice, led the successful spotted owl litigation by conservationists a decade ago.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include: Columbia Riverkeeper, Friends of the Earth, Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Steelhead and Salmon Unlimited, Idaho Wildlife Federation, Institute for Fisheries Resources, National Wildlife Federation, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Salmon For All, Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, and Washington Wildlife Federation.