Fishing businesses and conservation groups filed suit today against the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology), saying the agency has failed endangered salmon by preventing beneficial water releases over dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The water releases over dams, or spill, is critical to aid migrating salmon and steelhead past the dams.
“I am fed up with Ecology’s willingness to allow the hydro-system to kill too many endangered fish and ignore both science and economic reality,” said Glen Spain, Northwest Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), a trade organization for West Coast commercial fishing families. “This case seeks to give salmon more of what they need to survive, as well as help the coastal and inland communities that depend on those fish for their livelihoods.”
“We have spent too much money and put in too much effort to bring back our Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead to stand by while Ecology denies the public’s fish their best chance of survival,” said Norman Ritchie, Government Affairs Director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders.
The lawsuit, filed in Thurston County Superior Court, follows Ecology’s recent decision to deny a petition filed on behalf of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, and Idaho Rivers United to change the standards governing how much water may be released over the dams. The groups are represented by Earthjustice, a non-profit public interest law firm. The petition sought to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release more water in greater volume than is permitted under Washington’s current restrictions. Increasing the amount of water released — or “spilled” — over the dams increases salmon survival by allowing more fish to avoid the dam’s lethal turbines as they make their journey to the ocean.
“By preventing the release of more water for spill over dams, Ecology is ignoring the number one tool available to help our Northwest salmon economy recover and become strong again,” said Liz Hamilton, Executive Director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. “Spill is a proven, effective action that helps to ensure that there will always be sustainable salmon runs for the people and communities that depend on them. But with Washington’s standards in place, the fish will be denied the spill they so desperately need.”
Monitoring, conducted over the last two decades, continues to demonstrate considerable benefit to salmon survival from increased spill levels. Even in low water conditions, releasing water over the dams has helped produce some of the best returns of salmon and steelhead seen in many years.
The fish in the river tell the story. This year’s returns are again showing that the more natural river conditions created by these water releases, put in place by court order resulting from Earthjustice litigation, is helping to bring more salmon back. This year’s run has so far brought a huge shot in the arm to sport and commercial fisheries in the Columbia River at a time when the rest of the West Coast salmon fishing picture has been a disaster.
The implementation of court-ordered spill has improved fish passage conditions since 2006, and has played a significant role in increased salmon and steelhead returns in the past several years. While these incremental improvements in river operations have helped more fish survive, they are not enough to eliminate the decline of many Columbia and Snake River stocks.
Spill in the Columbia and Snake Rivers is currently artificially constrained by Washington’s unnecessarily restrictive Total Dissolved Gas (TDG) standards. Washington’s standards allow a TDG level of 120 percent in the area immediately below a dam’s spillway (the tailrace), but erroneously restrict it to 115 percent in the area just above the next dam downstream (the fore bay). In 2006, the 115 percent limitation reduced spring spill for salmon migration by 4.1 million acre feet, and led to reduced numbers of salmon and steelhead that survived migration through the lower Columbia and Snake River dams, according to the Fish Passage Center. Depending on the specific run and river flow conditions, studies have estimated that eliminating the 115 percent fore bay standard could increase salmon and steelhead survival from one to nine percent.
The fishing businesses and conservation groups want Washington to remove the 115 percent fore bay TDG limit or increase it to 120 percent, since the current limit is artificially capping what regional fish managers have said is needed for increased salmon survival. The state of Oregon looked at the science and recently dropped the 115 percent fore bay limit to increase fish survival. Washington has so far refused to follow that lead.
“Ecology continues to ignore both science and the voice of reason,” said Earthjustice attorney Amanda Goodin. “We are left with little choice but to turn to the courts. We had hoped Washington would adopt a common-sense, biologically-sound approach to give endangered salmon a better chance of surviving. Unfortunately, that proved too much to expect.”