Snake River Victory

From American Rivers: American Rivers won an important legal action yesterday regarding our campaign to recover Snake River salmon and steelhead when federal district court judge James Redden ruled that NOAA Fisheries violated the Endangered Species Act. In particular, Judge Redden found that NOAA Fisheries’ biological opinion (BiOp) on upper Snake River water storage projects operated by the Bureau of Reclamation failed to evaluate the cumulative impact of upper Snake River water management on salmon and steelhead in light of the harm to the fish caused by federal dams downstream, including the four lower Snake River dams. Despite the fact that Redden, who is also the judge who invalidated the biological opinion covering the lower Snake/Columbia river hydroelectric projects last year, disagreed with our argument that the ESA requires that the two biological opinions be combined into one, he ordered the federal agencies to rewrite both BiOps in a manner that evaluates fully the impacts of the upriver and downriver dams on Snake River salmon and steelhead. This was the substantive outcome we were after. Our primary purpose in bringing this litigation was to force the federal government to do an honest analysis of the trade-offs between pursuing a Snake River salmon recovery strategy with the four lower Snake River dams in place, and one in which they would be removed. A non-removal strategy (which the scientific analysis reveals would probably not succeed) would likely require that water in the Bureau’s upper Snake River storage projects be redirected from irrigators to the Snake River to increase salmon survival past the lower Snake River dams. Understanding this trade-off is necessary for informed decision-making, but prior to Judge Redden’s ruling the federal agencies – under intense pressure from the state of Idaho – had effectively hidden that trade-off by failing to do a comprehensive, basin-wide analysis. Judge Redden explained the need for a comprehensive analysis this way: "Rebuilding salmon to healthy, harvestable levels will come in large part from addressing the impacts of down-river dam operations that do the most harm to salmon. Even so, the water of the upper Snake water projects and its uses must be an integral part of the analysis. There must be a comprehensive evaluation of the effects of water use in the upper Snake River and the down-river dam operations." Unsurprisingly, Judge Redden's opinion is already proving unpopular among the Idaho congressional delegation, which to date has supported neither lower Snake River dam removal nor changes in upper Snake River water management. Prior to the ruling, Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) was already considering attaching a "rider" on an appropriations bill to overturn a favorable decision. But Judge Redden's opinion is written in a manner that does not lend itself to a rider, because it does not dictate any particular outcome. And, if a rider is attempted, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) has promised to help fight it. She is well positioned to do so from her seat on the Senate appropriations committee.