A federal district court in Oregon today confirmed that the Army Corps of Engineers must operate its dams in compliance with the Clean Water Act. The court also decided that the Corps had taken steps to comply with the Clean Water Act by adopting the 2001 Water Quality Plan, but recognized that the four lower Snake River Dams are currently violating the Act. Conservation and fishing groups, joined by the Nez Perce Tribe and the State of Oregon, had argued that the four Snake River dams illegally raise water temperatures in the river.
“Until we brought this lawsuit, the Corps thought it was above the law,” said Todd True, an attorney with Earthjustice. “Now at least the Corps has begun to address the harm it does to water quality. Of course, we are disappointed with the Court’s ruling today because we don’t think the Corps actually has done what the law requires to restore water quality in the Snake River. For that reason, we will be reviewing the Court’s decision to determine whether we should appeal it.”
Specifically, the Court held that “While the Corps was not free under the facts of this case to comply with the Endangered Species Act without considering its legal obligations under the Clean Water Act, . . . the Corps considered all of the relevant factors . . . when it concluded that the measures set forth [in the federal salmon plan] are consistent with the Corps’ obligations under the Clean Water Act.”
“The Corps did the bare minimum necessary to defend itself in court,” said Jan Hasselman at National Wildlife Federation. “Unfortunately, the court ruled that the Army Corps’ bare minimum was good enough, but salmon are still in hot water.”
Because high temperatures can be harmful and even lethal to salmon and steelhead, the State of Washington has enacted protective water quality standards in accordance with the Clean Water Act. When the Corps recently analyzed the costs of keeping and maintaining the four lower Snake River dams, it failed to include the cost of complying with these water quality standards – costs that the federal government estimates could range from $400 to $900 million.
“This decision does not change the fact that the four lower Snake River dams must comply with the Clean Water Act,” said Nicole Cordan of Save Our Wild Salmon. “Instead, the court states that the Corps’ current plan only needs to take steps toward compliance with the Act. If an attempt to comply with the law is as good as compliance, then I guess I’ll attempt to pay my taxes.”
The district court opinion can be found at www.wildsalmon.org/library_files/Opinion583_SJ_3.pdf. For more information on the benefits of breaching the four lower Snake River dams, visit www.removedams.org or www.americanrivers.org.
The case, National Wildlife Federation v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, was brought by National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Idaho Rivers United, American Rivers, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Washington Wildlife Federation, and Idaho Wildlife Federation, represented by Kristen Boyles and Todd True of Earthjustice and Stephanie Parent of Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center.