Editorial: Judge deals blow to enviro group in local dam lawsuit

A chinook salmon is given antibiotics after being collected downstream from Pelton Dam. (Jarod Opperman / Bulletin file photo)

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon recently dismissed the case filed by the Deschutes River Alliance against Portland General Electric, alleging water quality violations at the Pelton Round Butte Dam.

Judge Simon made the right decision. It doesn’t mean that the Deschutes River Alliance’s goal of trying to bring cooler and cleaner water to the Deschutes River is wrong. But the judge ruled that the environmental group did not provide sufficient facts that the hydroelectric project is operating in violation. He granted a motion for summary judgment.

The Pelton Round Butte dam was completed in 1964 and is a system of three dams along the Deschutes. It’s a partnership between PGE and the Confederated Tribes of Warms Springs.

The hydroelectric project produces power for about 150,000 homes. But there is a tradeoff. The dams interrupt the natural passage of fish and other wildlife. The migration of salmon and steelhead is cut off. The dams also can cause water quality issues, making the river less hospitable to wildlife.

The most striking step PGE and the tribes took to attempt to mitigate those tradeoffs was building a 273-foot tower in the river. It helps transport fish around the dam and better control water temperature. What the Deschutes River Alliance argued in its 2016 lawsuit is essentially that the solutions repeatedly failed to meet standards and made water quality worse downstream.

The difficulty is that it can be impossible for PGE and the tribes to operate the dam in a way that it will at all times get everything absolutely right, as the judge pointed out. For instance, “there are no measures that can lower pH without adversely affecting temperature, dissolved oxygen, and fish passage.”

The Deschutes River Alliance has said it is looking at the next steps it will take. The case has already cost taxpayer and ratepayer money in a quest for compliance with standards that are not possible to meet at all times. Taxpayers and ratepayers should be dismayed if it goes on any longer.

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