Seven conservation groups today sued the federal government for issuing an environmentally damaging hydropower license for a hydroelectric project on the North Umpqua River. For more than 50 years, the North Umpqua Hydroelectric Project has harmed species and habitat within the North Umpqua River basin and on Umpqua National Forest lands. According to the lawsuit filed by Earthjustice, the Forest Service ignored the advice of its own scientists when it agreed to the issuance of a new operating license for the project without requiring adequate measures to protect wildlife and their habitat.
“Conservationists are merely asking that the North Umpqua River be managed according to scientists’ recommendations,” said Kristen Boyles, an Earthjustice attorney representing the conservation groups in court.
The North Umpqua Project comprises eight dams, three reservoirs, over 30 miles of flumes and canals, six miles of penstocks and tunnels, and approximately 100 miles of project-related roads, all located on federal public land along the North Umpqua and two of its tributaries. Until last November, the 185.5-megawatt project operated by the multinational corporation Scottish Power was governed by a license issued in the early 1950s, but the federal agencies considering relicensing in the late 1990s determined that changes were required to protect fish and their habitat.
“Scottish Power has taken advantage of this mighty river and their old license for decades,” said Penny Lind, executive director of Umpqua Watersheds. “The beauty and wonder of the North Umpqua are too precious to manage incorrectly for the next 35 years.”
Because the project operates on national forest land, the government is tasked with ensuring that the project complies with federal laws and regional forest plans that require protecting salmon habitat. In fulfilling that responsibility, both Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists recommended removing or breaching Soda Springs dam, the lowermost of the eight project dams, because it inundates one of the most important mainstem spawning areas and harms salmon habitat. However, when Scottish Power refused to consider removing Soda Springs, the federal agencies backed away from their recommendations.
“This is yet another example of politics trumping science,” said Diana Wales of Umpqua Valley Audubon Society. “We are only seeking balance — we can have hydropower and a healthy river but not with the current license that ignores the most significant problems caused by Soda Springs dam.”
The North Umpqua River originates on the western slope of the central Cascade Mountains in southwest Oregon and drains about 1,350 square miles before joining the South Umpqua River west of Roseburg. The river flows through a narrow canyon with steep bedrock steps and benches. The North Umpqua River is one of the most beautiful rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Five anadromous fish species – chinook salmon, steelhead, coastal cutthroat trout, coho salmon, and Pacific lamprey – live in the North Umpqua, and the river is renowned for its excellent steelhead fly fishing. Most of the North Umpqua River below the hydroelectric project is designated a Wild and Scenic River, for its outstanding water quality and quantity, recreational opportunities, and fisheries.
“The North Umpqua River belongs to all of us, and our children and grandchildren. The changes we are asking for will ensure that this magnificent river is managed as a family heirloom, rather than as just another private profit center in Scottish Power’s international energy portfolio,” said Doug Heiken of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.
“People come from all over the nation to visit the North Umpqua River,” said Jim Van Loan, owner of the Steamboat Inn. “Protection of our fish and their habitat makes simple economic sense.”
“For 50 years, the project has been an economic bonanza to all of Scottish Power’s customers and stockholders, but all the environmental costs have been borne by the North Umpqua River, said Dr. Stan Vejtasa, a local engineering economist and member of Umpqua Valley Audubon Society. “It is time to restore the balance in favor of the river.”
Representing seven conservation groups — Umpqua Valley Audubon Society, Umpqua Watersheds, The North Umpqua Foundation, Steamboaters, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Pacific Rivers Council, and American Rivers — Earthjustice filed a petition for review of the decisions of both FERC and the Forest Service with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on May 24, 2004.
Diana Wales, Umpqua Valley Audubon Society, 541-673-0696
Doug Heiken, Oregon Natural Resources Council, 541-344-0675
Robin Hartmann, The North Umpqua Foundation, 541-672-3694
Ken Ferguson, Steamboaters, 541-673-1769