Federal Judge hammers salmon plan with powerful ruling

In a powerful 149-page ruling delivered yesterday, federal District Judge Michael Simon lambasted the federal government for failing to show that its dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers aren't driving endangered salmon and steelhead toward extinction.

It's the fifth consecutive time in 25 years that a federal judge has overturned a salmon plan. Simon is the third judge to do so.

"For more than 20 years [federal agencies] have ignored the admonishments of Judge Marsh and Judge Redden to consider more aggressive changes ... to save the imperiled listed species," Simon wrote. "The agencies instead continued to focus on essentially the same … Despite billions of dollars spent on these efforts, the listed species continue to be in a perilous state."

IRU has been fighting this fight since the organization's founding in 1990, a year before Idaho's sockeye salmon were listed as an endangered species. Simon's ruling is among the strongest that has been issued.

“It’s inexcusable that the federal government has squandered billions of taxpayer dollars in its effort to legitimize salmon-killing dams,” said IRU Conservation Director Kevin Lewis. “Judge Simon has made it abundantly clear that the charade of maintaining the status quo is unacceptable.”

In 20 years, peer-reviewed science has clearly identified the lower Snake River dams as the major factor in destruction of Idaho’s iconic wild salmon and steelhead. Lewis said that now is the time to put a plan into place that retires and removes the four dams. 

“Honest economic analysis shows that for every taxpayer dollar pumped into the lower Snake system, only 15 cents is returned as a public benefit,” Lewis said. “If the average American operated their finances in this fashion, they’d quickly be bankrupt.” 

The primary purpose of the lower Snake River dams when they were built in the 1960s and 1970s was to create a system of locks and slack-water reservoirs that turned Lewiston, Idaho, into a seaport. The promised economic boon to Lewiston, however, failed to materialize.

Commerce on the river peaked in 1997 and has steady and dramatically declined ever since. Moreover, container traffic all but ceased on the lower Snake in 2015, and overall shipping levels are well below the Army Corps of Engineers’ own definition of negligible.

Also, an underutilized railroad parallels the entire lower Snake River corridor and with minor modifications could easily absorb existing river-borne commerce—with room to spare.

“The lower Snake transportation system is a taxpayer-subsidized boondoggle that benefits few at the cost of many—including our endangered salmon,” Lewis said. 

The secondary purpose of the lower Snake River dams when they were built was hydropower generation. Like waterborne navigation, the hydropower generated by these dams is of limited quantity and value. Maximum generation takes place when demand and value are low. In times of high demand—the middle of the summer—flows are at their lowest, and contributions from these dams are minimal.

Further, the Pacific Northwest is awash in energy. 

“The region currently has a 15 percent surplus,” Lewis said. “If the lower Snake River dams, which provide up to 4 percent of the region’s power, were to vanish overnight, nobody would notice.”

Judge Simon ruled that the federal government’s plan to recover Columbia-Snake salmon violates the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act and required a new plan to be in place by 2018.

“The court’s rejection of yet another illegal federal plan for operating dams on these rivers amplifies the clear warning that management of the dams must change dramatically—and fast,” Lewis said.