Federal agencies were set this summer to walk away from hard-fought provisions of agreements that aim to protect endangered salmon and steelhead species in the Columbia system.
U.S. District Court Judge James Redden was right to side with the salmon by making the agencies comply with terms of these 2000 and 2004 Biological Opinions. The 9th U.S. Court of Appeals was right in confirming Redden's decision.
Stating what has seemed obvious to Lower Columbia fishing interests for half a century, the judge ruled "As currently operated, I find that the dams strongly contribute to the endangerment of the listed species and irreparable injury will result if changes are not made."
At its most basic level, this fight is about one of the central disputes over Columbia River management in recent decades: The success of barging young salmon around dams as opposed to leaving enough water flowing in the river so that they can transport themselves.
Even after decades of barging, the practice's relative merits are still uncertain, and the NOAA Fisheries agency's Biological Opinions (or Bi-Ops) are designed in part to provide answers.
In response to a lawsuit by the politically mainstream National Wildlife Federation, Redden ordered the federal agencies in charge of the dams to spill water this summer. Spilling means the water is allowed to go by without being directed through power turbines that kill migrating salmon.
Redden noted that as a hedge against fish deaths from dam operations, the 2000 Bi-Op called for spilling enough summer water in order to allow a comparison of in-river migration versus barging.
But the proposals outlined in the 2004 Bi-Op summarily abandoned this approach which is intended to permit a meaningful evaluation of the summer salmon transportation program. At the same time, the actual risk to this year's runs of endangered salmon would not be spread between leaving them in the river and barging them.
In essence, the agencies wanted to put all our eggs in one basket - the controversial barging strategy that some argue sets salmon up for failure by denying them the conditioning that accompanies natural migration.
The agencies and the large utility customers - cheap power addicts - argued that leaving water in the river for salmon will cost $67 million. But this is only the hypothetical sum for which electricity might be sold if all the water were sent through turbines. Against this was the very real risk of extinction faced by diminished upriver salmon and steelhead runs during a year when low returns have been a subject of concern.
This fight must be settled once and for all, to provide a predictable guaranteed mix of migration mechanisms for salmon survival.