By Nicholas K. Geranios

The Associated Press

SPOKANE, Wash. — Conservationists and others have renewed a push to remove four giant dams from the Snake River to save wild salmon runs, after a federal judge criticized the government for failing to consider whether breaching the dams would save the fish.

The judge earlier this year rejected the government’s fifth and latest plan for protecting threatened and endangered salmon in the Columbia River system.

Agencies must take a new look at all approaches to managing the southeast Washington dams, including breaching, said U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon in Portland.

“This is an action that (government agencies) have done their utmost to avoid considering for decades,” he wrote.

His order triggered 15 public meetings in Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon, where the dam removal issue has percolated for two decades.

The first meeting was held last month, and the final one is scheduled for Dec. 8. After that, a plan to save the salmon must be created.

The Snake River, at just over 1,000 miles, is the 13th longest in the United States, flowing from the western border of Wyoming to its confluence with the mighty Columbia River in Washington. For much of its history, the river and its tributaries produced salmon runs in the millions that sustained Native American tribes who lived near its banks. The best salmon spawning grounds were in Idaho, and were hampered by the construction of the four dams.

Environmental groups say restoring the salmon runs is impossible with the four dams in place.

The dams provide about 5 percent of the region’s electricity, roughly enough power for a city the size of Seattle. A recent report by the federal Bonneville Power Administration said if the Snake River dams are removed, a new natural gas plant would be required to replace the lost electricity.

Thirteen runs of Columbia and Snake river salmon and steelhead remain endangered or threatened despite billions of dollars spent over decades to save them.

Sam Mace, a spokeswoman for Save Our Wild Salmon, said the dams’ benefits are not worth the loss of the iconic fish.

“There is more than one way to get wheat to market,” Mace said. “But salmon only have one way to travel, and that’s in the river.”

Salmon supporters say restored salmon runs will help the economy.

“Healthy salmon populations could support tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars annually in the recreation and tourism economy,” said Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.

Idaho’s Nez Perce Tribe also has called for removing the dams and restoring the fish to harvestable levels.

“The four dams on the lower Snake River have had a devastating impact on salmon,” said McCoy Oatman, the tribe’s vice chairman.

Opponents of breaching the dams say they provide irrigation, hydropower and shipping benefits, and allow grain barges to operate all the way to Lewiston, Idaho, more than 400 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River.

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