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March 19, 2021

Earthrise Files Lawsuit Challenging Dams on Columbia and Snake Rivers

Earthrise Law Center filed an eighth supplemental complaint with the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon over the federal hydropower systems in the Columbia and Snake Rivers and the agencies’ failure to comply with the ESA and NEPA.
  • The John Day Dam is a concrete gravity run-of-the-river dam spanning the Columbia River near Goldendale, Washington. John Day Dam is part of the Columbia River Basin system of dams.
    iStockphoto

Earthrise Law Center, working with Earthjustice, filed a supplemental complaint with the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon in January on behalf of a broad coalition of environmental and fishing organizations seeking to restore Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead runs.

The supplement complaint was the eighth such complaint filed in a lawsuit over the federal hydropower system in the Columbia and Snake rivers. The complaint alleges a biological opinion and environmental impact statement issued last summer, as well as a September 2020 record of decision from several federal agencies, violated both the Endangered Species Act and NEPA.

As noted in a Law360 article, plaintiffs believe that the federal government’s latest plan for operating federal dams was “developed in a rush by the outgoing Trump administration and it green-lights essentially the same operations the courts have consistently rejected for more than two decades and through a half dozen different failed efforts.”

The Trump administration’s hurried process yielded a decision that the dams could operate without making significant changes to protect imperiled salmon and steelhead that a federal judge first demanded in 1994. The complaint charges that the federal defendants, in the process of justifying the status quo, “misconstrue laws written to protect the environment, provide skewed and incomplete analyses, and fail to actually account for critical and credible scientific information, especially regarding the advancing effects of climate change.”

The complaint contends that the latest federal dam operations plan fails “the rapidly vanishing Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead populations that have been at the center of this controversy for nearly three decades.”

Earthrise, Earthjustice, and the plaintiff organizations have worked closely over the years with the region’s Indian tribes to protect salmon; the complaint notes that federal agencies are seeking to perpetuate an unsatisfactory status quo “even though the cumulative adverse effects of the Columbia River System dam and its operations for over 80 years have been more devastating for Native American Tribes and people than any other group.”

The plaintiffs also allege in the complaint the federal agencies’ Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) violates NEPA because “it fails fundamentally to achieve the basic purpose of an environmental impact statement: to fully and objectively disclose the reasonably foreseeable direct, indirect, and cumulative effects on the environment of the proposed action and a range of reasonable alternatives.”

Plaintiffs ask for the court to throw out both the ESA biological opinion prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the federal government’s plan for operating the dams due to violations of the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act. Plaintiffs hope to force the federal government to reconsider its refusal to remove the four lower dams on the Snake River and replace their hydropower output with electric power from renewable energy sources – a strategy that the federal defendants admit has the best chance to recover Snake River salmon.

As part of the suit to protect salmon, Earthrise’s complaint challenges key 2019 rollbacks in regulations implementing the ESA approved by the Trump Administration that helped federal defendants approve the harmful dam operations.