Today, Earthjustice on behalf of a coalition of fishing and conservation groups returned to court to challenge the latest federal plan for hydropower operations on the Snake and Columbia Rivers. This latest plan was developed in a rush by the outgoing Trump administration and it green-lights essentially the same operations the courts have consistently rejected for more than two decades and through a half dozen different failed efforts. This is the eighth incarnation of this long legal fight to restore endangered salmon and steelhead.
Some $15 billion has been spent on the multiple inadequate federal efforts to protect salmon under the previous illegal plans and not one species has recovered.
In this legal challenge, the fishing and conservation groups will also bring claims against Trump administration rollbacks to the Endangered Species Act regulations, changes that a coalition of states and conservation organizations have also challenged in separate cases. The latest federal plan for dam operations relies on these new weakened regulations to support its conclusions.
In this case, Earthjustice represents American Rivers, Idaho Rivers United, Institute for Fisheries Resources, NW Energy Coalition, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Columbia Riverkeeper, and Idaho Conservation League.
The following are statements from the lawyers and plaintiff groups:
“I want to make this clear: We would rather not be going to court today but the outgoing administration has given us no choice. We’d rather be working together — with tribes, scientists, fishing businesses, farmers, freight industry, and our elected leaders in Congress — to develop a comprehensive solution that includes restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River. But the Trump administration ignored the science and the voices of hundreds of thousands in the Pacific Northwest rubber-stamping a plan that yet again fails to take the actions necessary to protect salmon and steelhead. We have no choice but to challenge this failure of a plan.” —Todd True, Earthjustice attorney representing the groups
“While we seek to work with others on durable recovery plans, combined with infrastructure updates that will create jobs for the fishing industry, energy sector, and transportation, we must work just as diligently to challenge this plan that represents a step backwards for our entire region. This Biological Opinion is illegal, built upon a crumbling foundation that fails fish and our regional economy.” —Liz Hamilton, Executive Director, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association
“This plan fails the region, again. Instead of going back to the courtroom, we should be working together on a regional solution that puts us on a path to abundance and prosperity, but the federal government’s fast tracked process that takes us backwards instead of forward and it needs to be challenged. We continue to call for a comprehensive solution that brings back salmon to healthy, harvestable levels and honors the rights of Native American tribes while investing in modern transportation infrastructure and clean energy, revitalizing our economy, and ensuring a strong future.” —Wendy McDermott, American Rivers
“The endangered salmon of the Columbia and Snake Rivers sustain a fragile ecosystem, diverse communities, and the Northwest’s economic prosperity. While we continue to work alongside Northwest Tribes, communities, and political leaders to find inclusive and comprehensive solutions, we look to the federal courts to uphold critical salmon protections.” —Sarah Bates, Acting Regional Executive Director for the National Wildlife Federation’s Northern Rockies, Prairies, and Pacific Region
“This flawed plan is now just another Trump-era relic, and illegally ignores the economic benefits of salmon restoration in the Columbia. Studies have shown that about 25,000 family wage jobs, and more than $500 million/year in economic benefits could be restored to the west coast economy by recovering the Columbia Basin’s damaged salmon runs, once the largest in the world. None of those potential economic benefits were even considered — only grossly inflated estimates of costs.”—Glen Spain, Northwest Regional Director, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA)
“The Trump administration and federal agencies have continued the long pattern of adopting a plan that fails to recover salmon and steelhead, fails our communities, and does not meet our responsibilities to Native American tribes and treaties. Once again, challenging that failed approach is essential. We continue to believe the best way forward is to create a comprehensive, durable solution. Stakeholders, Tribes, state officials, and the Northwest congressional delegation must come together to develop a plan that restores the Snake River and its salmon, and invests in our energy system and transportation infrastructure. Continuing the current path of failure works for no one — it neglects obligations to Tribes and treaties, it maintains risk for communities, ensures uncertainty for energy providers, and keeps our iconic salmon, steelhead, and orca swimming at the brink of extinction.” —Alex Craven, Senior Our Wild America Organizer, Sierra Club
“The State of Idaho, our river communities, and our fish are all failed by this plan. Not only does this Final Environmental Impact Statement fail to meet the judicial mandate to recover salmon, it undermines all of the great work being done regionally to provide real solutions to the rapid extirpation of Snake River salmon and steelhead. Challenging this plan is paramount to achieving the collaborative goals of abundant, wild fish populations, a regional clean-energy portfolio, and duality of economies for the fishing and ag communities of our State.”—Nic Nelson, Executive Director, Idaho Rivers United
“The Trump administration has failed Northwest salmon, tribes, fishing business, and orcas. Like past plans, this one will not recover abundant salmon runs. While today’s legal action is necessary to protect our iconic species and salmon cultures from extinction, we desperately need Members of Congress from Oregon, Washington, and Idaho to engage to secure an inclusive, regional solution.” — Brett VandenHeuvel, Executive Director, Columbia Riverkeeper
The Columbia River Basin was once among the greatest salmon-producing river systems in the world. But all remaining salmon on its largest tributary, the Snake River, are facing extinction. Four aging dams in Washington — Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Monumental, Lower Granite — block passage along the lower Snake River, a major migration corridor linking pristine cold-water streams in central Idaho to the mighty Columbia River and out to the Pacific Ocean. Scientists say restoring the lower Snake River by taking out the dams is the single best thing we can do to save the salmon.
Migrating through the dams is difficult for the fish, but rising water temperatures caused by the slackwater reservoirs make the passage increasingly deadly. In 2015, some of the earliest and hottest weather on record produced warm river temperatures that killed more than 90% of all adult sockeye salmon returning to the Columbia Basin. In years since, state agencies have had to limit or cancel entire fishing seasons to protect the dwindling fish.
The district court in 2016 found the operation of the hydropower system in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act and ordered the federal agencies to prepare a new biological opinion and environmental impact statement. The federal action agencies — the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bonneville Power Administration — issued their Final Environmental Impact Statement for dam operations in July 2020, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a companion Biological Opinion that found the proposed plan would not jeopardize salmon, steelhead, or orcas.
On September 28, 2020, the action agencies issued a joint Record of Decision, opting to continue a course of action the court has previously found inadequate to comply with the Endangered Species Act.
Independent researchers who have studied the economics of restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River and renewable power replacement options favor dam removal.