A coalition of business, fishing, and conservation groups today warned that operation of ten dams and reservoirs on the upper Snake River in Idaho needs to be reevaluated to avoid harm to salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Attorneys for Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Conservation League, American Rivers, and the National Wildlife Federation notified the federal Bureau of Reclamation and NOAA Fisheries that a lawsuit will be filed unless steps are taken to ensure that the upper Snake River projects comply with the ESA. The groups are being represented by Advocates for the West, a non-profit environmental law firm based in Boise, and Earthjustice.
“The bureau needs to make sure that enough water is flowing into the Snake River out of Idaho so that fish can make it past the dams,” said Jan Hasselman of the National Wildlife Federation. “Instead, they’re providing a fraction of what the government’s own scientists say is necessary to protect fish and the communities that depend on them.”
“Our letter puts the agencies on notice that they must fulfill their role in the regional salmon recovery effort by providing necessary water flows from the upper Snake River,” said Laird Lucas, an attorney with Advocates for the West.
At issue is whether NOAA Fisheries’ 2001 Upper Snake River Biological Opinion is adequate to protect the fish. In that biological opinion, NOAA concluded that Bureau of Reclamation operation of the projects would not jeopardize the protected species. But that conclusion was based on the same mitigation measures that formed the basis for a NOAA finding that dam operations downstream wouldn’t harm federally protected salmon. In May a federal district court in Oregon invalidated the federal salmon plan for the downstream dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers because the mitigation measures were too speculative and uncertain. The conservation groups believe the May court action demonstrates that the government must take a fresh look at the dam operations in the upper Snake River basin. Additionally, NOAA Fisheries failed to conduct adequate analysis of the upper Snake River project impacts when it issued the 2001 BiOp currently in place.
Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League said, “The plan for operating the upper Snake projects is illegal because it relies largely on another plan that has been ruled illegal. That situation needs to be corrected to make sure salmon get the water they need to survive.”
The region’s Independent Scientific Advisory Board, an expert scientific panel that advises on salmon recovery efforts, recently affirmed in a February 2003 report that salmon survival decreases substantially when flow targets are not met.
The conservation groups hope that the bureau and NOAA Fisheries will commit to reevaluating the upper Snake River storage projects without the need for litigation, but the agencies failed to make that commitment when several of the groups requested it in July.
“With the lower Snake River dams still in place, adequate water delivery from upstream is critical to juvenile salmon, especially fall chinook, migrating to the sea,” said Bill Sedivy with Idaho Rivers United. “Since 2000, the government has consistently failed to meet flow targets at the lower Snake River dams and water delivery targets for upper Snake River water.” Indeed, the bureau has provided less water in 2001-2003 than it had in the 1990s to aid salmon and steelhead.
Rob Masonis of American Rivers said, “If the lower Snake River dams are not going to be removed, the administration must deliver the water necessary to adequately mitigate the harm caused by the dams.”