Federal Agencies Examining Columbia River Dam Operations

Public meetings held in western Montana in wake of judge’s ruling that dams have negative impacts on salmon and steelhead

By Justin Franz
Hungry Horse Dam on March 31, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The federal agencies responsible for the operation of more than a dozen dams in the Pacific Northwest — including two in Northwest Montana — are analyzing how to adjust operations within the Columbia River Basin to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration are working on a revised environmental impact statement after a federal judge ruled that the operation of 14 dams, including the Hungry Horse and Libby dams, is having a negative impact on salmon and steelhead. The three agencies have been hosting meetings across the Pacific Northwest, including one in Kalispell on Nov. 1, Libby on Nov. 2, and Missoula on Nov. 3.

“We want people be able to provide input on how to operate the system because there are so many competing interests,” said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson Amy Gaskill.

The dams of the Columbia River Basin have been described as a “complex system” built to create hydro-electricity and offer flood control for the Pacific Northwest. The dams in the United States and others in Canada were the result of the Columbia River Treaty, a groundbreaking international agreement between the two nations signed in 1964.

The Columbia River Basin dams have been the subject of numerous lawsuits in recent decades because of their impacts on salmon and steelhead, both of which were given protected status in the 1990s. The National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency responsible for the stewardship of marine resources, has maintained that the dams do not negatively impact the fish. But earlier this year, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon in Oregon ordered the agencies to take another look at the dams’ impact on their environment. In a 149-page ruling, he noted that none of the federal agencies have considered how climate change would impact the river system or fish.

“The Court finds that NOAA Fisheries’ assertion that the effects of climate change have been adequately assessed in (a 2014 biological opinion) is not ‘complete, reasoned, or adequately explained,’” Simon wrote. “NOAA Fisheries’ analysis does not apply the best available science, overlooks important aspects of the problem and fails (to properly) analyze the effects of climate change.”

The federal agencies will be gathering public input on river and dam operations from now until Jan. 2017, and hope to issue a new draft environmental impact statement in Fall 2019 or Spring 2020. For more information, visit www.crso.info.