Today the commercial and recreational fishing industries, as well as salmon and river-conservation organizations, asked a federal judge to protect dwindling Snake River salmon and steelhead populations by requiring the federal government to improve its plan for operating irrigation projects in the upper Snake River basin.
The request comes on the eve of a hearing before the same judge addressing how to improve federal dam operations on the lower Snake and Columbia Rivers so they don’t kill protected salmon stocks.
The plaintiffs, American Rivers, Idaho Rivers United, National Wildlife Federation, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), and Institute for Fisheries Resources, allege that a federal biological opinion asserting that irrigation projects on the upper Snake River don’t harm protected salmon is illegal for many of the same reasons federal judge James Redden found the 2004 biological opinion approving lower Snake and Columbia Rivers dam operations illegal in a May ruling.
Judge Redden is presiding over both cases challenging the federal biological opinions. His May ruling ordered the federal government to rewrite the lower Snake/Columbia rivers biological opinion.
The fishing industry and conservation groups in the upper Snake River case are asking Judge Redden to invalidate the 2005 upper Snake biological opinion and order the government to combine both biological opinions into one comprehensive federal salmon plan.
“Both cases are about setting up a framework that will get salmon out of the courtroom and back into our rivers in healthy, fishable numbers. This is about taking a comprehensive, honest look at what it will take to recover the Columbia Basin’s salmon for our communities and generations to come,” said Michael Garrity of American Rivers, the lead plaintiff in the upper Snake case.
“We need to make sure all Northwest states, including Idaho, are doing their part to bring back these fish that are symbols of our region,” Garrity said.
The conservation and fishing groups say that bringing the upper Snake River dam operations into the salmon recovery equation does not mean they are reducing their focus on removing four outdated dams on the lower Snake River dams, which the Bush administration has opposed.
“Only a plan that includes the removal of the four lower Snake River dams has been demonstrated as capable of restoring healthy, fishable runs of Snake River salmon and steelhead,” said Bill Sedivy of Idaho Rivers United. “The Bush administration either needs to identify a non-dam removal solution that would be as affordable and effective as removing those four outdated dams or change its position on the issue. The people of the Northwest want answers and action.”
A free-flowing lower Snake River and restored salmon runs would have numerous benefits for the area’s economy and quality of life.
“Restored salmon runs would bring hundreds of millions of dollars to rural communities,” said Brent Estep, owner of Mackay Wilderness River Trips, an Idaho fishing and river outfitter. “But ultimately, restoring salmon is about more than money, it is about meeting our responsibilities, passing on traditions, and protecting our unique Northwest way of life for the generations that come after us.”
“The status quo leads only to the ultimate extinction of salmon runs that could, once restored as the law requires, support hundreds of millions of dollars a year in additional revenues for the region,” commented Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the West Coast’s largest commercial fishermen’s trade association. “The problems are throughout the whole river and affect the whole region. It just makes no sense to divide the river artificially into two unconnected pieces, both with bad restoration plans. We are asking the court to order the Bush administration to do it right next time and treat the river as one river, not two.”
Earthjustice attorneys Todd True and Steve Mashuda are handling the legal efforts for the fishing and conservation groups.