The Feds' Latest Plan to Restore Columbia Salmon
by Scott Learn
The third try for a blueprint on restoring fish runs
will go before a federal judge who has threatened severe limits
After two rejections in court, the U.S. government released its third plan Monday for pulling threatened Columbia River basin salmon from the brink of extinction -- again without dramatically altering hydropower generation from the system's dams.
The Bush administration plan follows Friday's signing of the government's $900 million deal with four Northwest tribes requiring that the tribes not oppose dam operations for a decade.
It includes improvements to tributaries, hatcheries and dams as well as fishing limits. It would cost $75 million a year, make $500 million in capital improvements to the system's 14 dams over 10 years, and boost rates for hydropower generated by the dams by up to 4 percent.
It now goes before Judge James Redden in U.S. District Court, where Oregon and environmental groups continue to pursue a lawsuit challenging dam operations. Redden has twice rejected the federal government's plans for 13 runs of Columbia and Snake salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The government already has spent billions on salmon recovery, with often discouraging results. And Redden has hinted at severe limits on dam operations if the third plan doesn't pass muster.
Officials with NOAA Fisheries Service said the new plan is the most thorough ever. The plans, known as biological opinions, go beyond protecting existing fish and "improve prospects for recovery," Bob Lohn, head of NOAA's Northwest Region, said in a statement.
The plan would provide new equipment to detour fish around deadly dam turbines; manage spills to better match when fish are present; fine-tune hatchery programs; restore salmon habitat in tributaries; and control birds, sea lions and fish that prey on salmon.
The Bonneville Power Administration and other federal agencies involved with the dams also followed Redden instructions to collaborate with parties in the lawsuit, signing the separate deal with four Native American tribes.
That agreement allocates $900 million over 10 years to projects favored by the tribes, including some targeted to threatened fish. In exchange, the tribes agreed to drop out of the lawsuit and support dam operations as proposed in the new plan for a decade.
Environmental groups blasted the plan, first released in draft form last year. It ducks the damage done by dams, the major issue in salmon recovery, they said.
Many environmentalists and sport and commercial fishing groups favor breaching the Snake River dams and spilling more water from dams to aid migrating fish.
Overall, wild salmon have fallen to 5 percent of their historic numbers in the Northwest, and salmon advocates say the region is running out of time.
Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director, said in a statement that the plan "paves the way to extinction for salmon."
In recent years, a collapse in the ocean food chain has added to problems salmon face, contributing to a collapse of Sacramento River salmon this season and the closure of salmon fishing along Oregon and California's coasts, where the Sacramento fish migrate.
For details on the government's plans, go to www.nwr.noaa.gov and click on the "biological opinions" link.
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