Dams to be Used to Save Salmon

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A federal district court has ordered more water to be released from hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River, as a way to protect endangered salmon. The action is expected to increase electrical rates for consumers in the Northwest. Associations representing local consumers are expected to appeal the ruling.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A federal judge in Oregon has taken the unusual step of ordering five Northwestern dams to spill water in hopes of saving endangered salmon. Electric utilities and their customers in the region complain that the judge has gone too far. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

In the small Idaho town of Riggins, Jack Darragh runs a motel that caters to anglers. They come to Riggins for a chance to catch the salmon that spawn in the nearby mountain streams.

Mr. JACK DARRAGH (Motel Owner): They are an incredibly awesome fish. They have to travel 950 miles of river to get there.

KASTE: But this year, salmon stocks are low and Darragh's motel is nearly empty. He blames the hydroelectric dams down stream on the Snake and Columbia rivers. The dams aren't so much an obstacle for adult salmon coming upstream as they are for the young fish swimming back down.

Mr. DARRAGH: What they've been doing is barging them around the dams. They scoop them all out of the river. Then they take them down below the dams and then they let them out again. It's the most ridiculous thing.

KASTE: Federal Judge James Redden seems to share this opinion. He recently ruled that the government's plan for protecting salmon is insufficient, and last Friday, he went further, ordering five dams to divert about two-thirds of their flow away from the turbines that generate power. This will keep young salmon from getting chopped up, but it will also mean that the turbines will not generate about $67 million worth of electricity. John Saven is the chief executive officer of an association that represents regional power consumers. He says taking that much power out of the grid will end up raising the average customer's rates up to $30 a year.

Mr. JOHN SAVEN: You know, at the end of the day, America needs to be competitive and people need to have jobs and we need to make reasonable tradeoffs between what we're doing to impact the economy and what we're doing to impact the environment.

KASTE: Saven also points to research suggesting that spilling water might actually kill more juvenile salmon than moving them by barge. These arguments are dismissed by the National Wildlife Federation, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that triggered the judge's ruling. NWF lawyer Jan Hasselman says the court seems to have come to the conclusion that time is running out for the salmon that go farthest upstream.

Mr. JAN HASSELMAN (Attorney): Every run of salmon in the Snake River today is either extinct or listed under the Endangered Species Act, and we're at a place where we might see the remaining populations wink out.

KASTE: Some environmental groups say the only way to save the upriver salmon is to remove at least four major dams on the Columbia system, but so far, there's little political will for a solution that drastic. Witt Anderson is chief of the Columbia River fish management office at the Army Corps of Engineers. He says simply blowing up some hydroelectric dams won't save the salmon. Anderson says salmon habitats and hatcheries need to be improved.

Mr. WITT ANDERSON (Columbia River Fish Management Office, Army Corps of Engineers): It's a very complex problem that's caused the decline and, therefore, limits the recovery of these fish. Hydro's a piece of that and we think our plan is a good plan to address the hydro component.

KASTE: But the government's plan, which includes the method of barging the salmon around the dams, is now on hold and the Corps is getting ready to start spilling water as the judge ordered. Local power consumers plan to appeal the order to a higher court and they expect the Bush administration to appeal as well.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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