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Will Obama Broach Dam Breaching?

by Rocky Barker
Idaho Statesman, September 14, 2009

The Obama administration is expected to roll out its Columbia-Snake River salmon and dam plan Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge James Redden gave the administration another month to seek a consensus on what it would do to change two biological opinions on the dams that were done at the end of the Bush administration. There have been talks between the two sides, and even though a lot of people know some of the details of the plan, they have honored the administration's request for confidentiality, at least with me.

But I've talked to a number of people on all sides of the issue, and here's what I know. The talks between the Justice Department and the people who are suing - Oregon, the Nez Perce tribe, environmentalists, sporting industry groups and fishermen - did not lead to larger talks with others involved, such as the Columbia tribes, the other Northwest states and utility and barging groups.

That means there won't be a settlement announced unless something happens this weekend. Don't hold your breath.

Administration officials would have had to make major changes in the two plans if they wanted to meet most of the concerns of the plaintiffs and perhaps Judge Redden.

I suspect they would have had to rule that the dams on the Columbia, Snake and their tributaries jeopardize the existence of the 13 stocks of endangered salmon and steelhead. Then they would have had to prepare a "reasonable and prudent" alternative that would have mitigated the effects of the dams.

The Bush administration opinion instead said the dams will not jeopardize the salmon, thanks to a slate of additional efforts including increased spending on habitat improvements, fixing hatcheries, restoring water to salmon spawning streams and other measures through the region.

Redden himself expressed doubts in May, writing that he believed the Bush biological opinions "fail to satisfy the biological and legal requirements of the Endangered Species Act."

So it is likely there will be some language in the new plan that offers to reconsider breaching four dams on the Snake River if all other measures fail. But I don't know whether there will be a hard trigger to clearly lay out when that time would come, or the necessary up-front studies to determine how it could be done.

I also expect to see additional measures added to improve the quality of the Columbia River estuary, since its improvement program was pretty thin when presented earlier this year in court. Redden remained skeptical the administration was promising to do all the inland habitat work it talked about, so there might be new financial commitments as well.

There was some independent review of the science on which the plan was based. How that gets reflected in the plan will be critical to how Redden views it.

Another critical issue for Redden is whether the plan reduces the water spilled over the dams as the Bush opinion called for. The water spilled doesn't go through the hydroelectric turbines and reduces revenues for the Bonneville Power Administration by tens of millions of dollars.

Obama's officials agreed to continue spilling water this year but made no long-term commitment. But if they were to keep the spill at the current level, all those potential Bonneville Power revenues - which help fund a lot of the fish programs - would be lost.

So watch for our reports online late Tuesday morning. The administration plans to make the plan public at 10 a.m.

Rocky Barker
Will Obama Broach Dam Breaching?
Idaho Statesman, September 14, 2009

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