Grant PUD faces suit over fish protection

By Laurie Smith
Wenatchee World staff writer

EPHRATA, WA - 5/1/02-- The National Wildlife Federation said Tuesday it plans to sue the Grant County PUD for contributing to the demise of salmon and steelhead protected by allegedly mismanaging its two Columbia River dams.

The nation's largest environmental organization said the PUD is reluctant to take aggressive measures needed for fish and permits too many fish to die. The fish are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Jan Hasselman, attorney for the National Wildlife Federation in Seattle, said a 2001 study conducted for the PUD estimated that 68 percent of juvenile migrating downstream to the Pacific Ocean survive the Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams.

"Upper Columbia salmon and steelhead are going to go extinct unless dramatic changes occur," Hasselman said.

Grant County PUD officials defended their efforts, saying the utility has a solid track record with fish protection. Over the last decade Grant PUD has spent more than $200 million on salmon protection.

The agency also noted its partnership with the Wanapum Indians who lived off the river's fish well before the dams were built.

The two dams produce enough electricity each year to supply a city the size of Seattle.

"We've been an innovator -- and recognized as one -- and continue to demonstrate our commitment," said PUD spokesman Gary Garnant.

Just a week ago, the PUD was honored for outstanding environmental stewardship by an industry group. In a news release, the National Wildlife Federation dismissed the award as "an empty publicity stunt."

The environmental organization filed a 60-day notice of a pending suit, which is standard under the Endangered Species Act. Other organizations expected to join in the lawsuit include the Western Watersheds Project, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association and the Institute for Fisheries Resources.

The organizations say they do not want to breach the dams, but rather to improve the projects' operations and management.

The PUD is operating unlawfully by killing Chinook salmon and other protected species without a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Wildlife Federation says.

"Commercial fishermen from Oregon to Alaska have suffered long enough as one run of salmon collapses after the other," said Glen Spain, of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens' Associations, the largest commercial fishing group on the West Coast. "While fishermen have pulled their boats out of the water, Grant County continues to turn a blind eye to both science and law."

Garnant said it's true that the utility doesn't have a permit. But he said other mid-Columbia dam operators don't either.

Hasselman said the Chelan County and Douglas County PUDs are well on their way to securing permits after negotiating for two years with NMFS on habitat conservation plans expected to be signed in the coming weeks. Grant PUD was involved in similar discussions, but then "pulled out abruptly when it realized it would have to take more aggressive measures to protect fish if it stayed in the process," he said.

"We fully expect to have comprehensive plan in place soon that will meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act," Garnant said. " We fully expect to receive the required permits in the future."

NMFS attorney Margaret Delp said the Grant PUD and the federal agency is working with the PUD to test a new "top-spill program" that could improve fish survival. If it works, it would be a step in the right direction, she said.

Normally, the dams' spill gates are raised to let fish pass underneath, Garnant said. Because fish swim near the surface, he said, it's thought to be less stressful for them to travel over the top of the gate. One spill gate at Wanapum was modified and tested in April with promising results, he said.

Hasselman said the top-spill program is "one step in coming up with an operating regime and structural changes that will allow salmon to recover. I don't think it's the only step."

Conducting an aggressive spill program during last year's drought was one of the accomplishments cited when the National Hydropower Association presented Grant PUD with an environmental stewardship award last week. The PUD was one of eight hydroelectric dam operators honored for "outstanding stewardship of America's rivers."

 

-- The Tri-City Herald
contributed to this article

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