Salmon spiral down as allies challenge barging

  • fish drawing

    Diane Sylvain
  Only an estimated 1,500 wild Snake River spring and summer chinook salmon returned to Idaho to spawn this summer, the lowest count on record. That compares to a 10-year average of 10,000 returning adults. "We're going rapidly down the track to zip," says Dexter Pittman of the Idaho Fish and Game Department. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported that some 90,000 chinook, including threatened Snake River stocks, died in an accident July 16. While fish were being collected for barging around McNary Dam, on the Columbia River near Umatilla, Ore., a new, $15 million screening system malfunctioned and the fish got packed together and overheated. That led federal officials to temporarily suspend barging and begin spilling water and baby salmon over the dam's spillways. Meanwhile, hoping to pry federal agencies away from reliance on barging to save endangered Snake River salmon, eight groups sued the federal government Aug. 4. Filed by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund on behalf of environmental and fishing groups, the lawsuit says the government's plan for operating eight federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers violates the Endangered Species Act. The 1994-1998 plan relies heavily on barging young salmon around fish-killing hydroelectric dams, a practice critics say has done little to slow the decline of salmon populations. In March, federal Judge Malcolm Marsh ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to look at alternatives to barging (HCN, 4/18/94). But when Judge Marsh ordered the agency to revise its plan, he didn't specify that barging violated the law, says Adam Berger, an attorney with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. Now the group wants Marsh to address that question. "The 1995 juvenile migration is likely to be the last halfway decent run," says Berger. "It's critical that we change conditions in the river now." Environmentalists hope Marsh will force federal agencies to spill more water over dams to help the salmon migrate.

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