SEATTLE - Conservation and fishermen's groups sued the state Department of Ecology on Thursday to get more water to spill over dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers, protecting salmon and steelhead.
The groups want the state to change its water quality standards so more water can be spilled over federal dams. They say releasing more water over the dams – rather than running it through turbines – improves salmon’s chances of surviving their migration.
Earthjustice filed the lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court on behalf of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the Institute for Fisheries Resources and Idaho Rivers United.
“We think this standard is badly needed to help imperiled salmon and steelhead, and we want Washington to do the right thing,” said Amanda Goodin, an Earthjustice attorney.
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Ecology denied the groups’ latest petition in May, citing concerns about possible harm to other aquatic life. The state said at the time that the change may provide a small benefit to salmon but may also harm other animals.
In response to Thursday’s lawsuit, Ecology said it follows federal clean water rules and noted that it already allows more water to spill over dams in certain situations.
“Ecology does not believe the overall benefits of additional spill versus detrimental effects to aquatic life is clear or sufficient to justify a rule revision of the water quality standards,” the agency said in a statement.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration control the level of spill at federal dams along the Snake and Columbia Rivers, but they must also meet state water quality standards, according to the lawsuit.
The dispute here involves limits on dissolved gases. Water spill can cause high levels of gases in the river.
Conservationists and fishermen want the state to lift some of the limits on dissolved gases so more water can be spilled to help juvenile salmon and steelhead migrating to the ocean. They say the practice has helped salmon returns.
Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, said, “By preventing the release of more water for spill over dams, Ecology is ignoring the number one tool available to help our Northwest salmon economy recover and become strong again.”