US House moves to reverse court order to aid salmon in Northwest

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. House approved a bill Wednesday that would reverse a federal judge's order to spill more water from four Pacific Northwest dams to help migrating salmon reach the Pacific Ocean.

The bill, approved 225-189, would prevent any changes in dam operations until 2022. It was sponsored by Republican Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, both of Washington state.

They say the four Snake River dams provide hydropower, flood control and other benefits while already allowing record salmon runs.

"We are recognizing the role dams play in the Northwest and that dams and fish can co-exist," McMorris Rodgers, the fourth-ranking House Republican, said after the vote.

Critics, however, blame the giant dams, built in the 1960s and 1970s, for killing wild salmon, an iconic species in the Northwest. Environmentalists have pushed to remove the dams to aid salmon recovery.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

"I urge my colleagues in the Senate to come forward and support our dams," Newhouse said.

Once one of the greatest salmon fisheries in the world, the Columbia-Snake river system now has more than a dozen endangered salmon runs.

Democrats have argued that on-going studies of the dams, including whether they should be removed, must go forward.

The four dams — Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite — span the Snake River between the Washington cities of Pasco and Pullman. Together they produce about 4 percent of the region's electricity.

Proposals to remove the dams have percolated in the Northwest for decades, and have devolved into a largely partisan issue with Democrats generally on the side of fish and Republicans for keeping the dams.

The government has spent some $15 billion over the decades to increase salmon runs, with mixed results.

In March 2017, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon of Portland, Oregon, ordered the dams to increase spillage beginning this spring. Federal agencies estimated that increasing spill from early April to mid-June would cost ratepayers $40 million in lost power revenues this year.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld Simon's order.

The dams operate under a plan to protect salmon created by a collaboration of federal agencies, states and Indian tribes during the Obama administration.

Simon found the plan does not do enough. He ruled a new environmental study is needed and it must consider the option of removing the dams. He also wrote that wild salmon were in a "precarious" state.

McMorris Rodgers countered that the number of salmon returning from the ocean to spawn is high.

"We have been in court now for 20 years," McMorris Rodgers said.

The House bill would delay changes to the 2014 plan for dam operations until 2022, she said.

"The experts ... should be the ones deciding how to best manage this system," Newhouse said. "Not a judge in Portland, Oregon."

Northwest RiverPartners, which represents a group of river users, hailed the bill as good news for salmon.

Salmon "will continue to benefit from protections that are already working," director Terry Flores said.

But environmental groups were dismayed by the bill.

"This legislation ensures that we continue on the same costly, ineffective path that has seen continued declines in wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest," the environmental groups said in a joint press release.

The bill "would push salmon closer to extinction," they contend.