the film
Commentaries and editorials

Salmon Judge: Obama Plan
Is A Good Piece Of Work

by Dennis Newman
Natural Oregon, November 23, 2009

It's a tricky business when reporters try to read the minds of judges. But if my impression is correct, U.S. District Judge Redden likes a lot of what he sees in the latest plans to help endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.

"This is a good piece of work," said Redden just before he called today's hearing to a close.

But serious problems remain. What Redden is looking at is really two plans, not one. First is the 2008 Biological Opinion (or BiOp) that was drawn up during the Bush Administration. Then you have the Obama update known as the Adaptive Management Implementation Plan (or AMIP).

The trick now is to bring those plans together as one, and to do so in a way that follows all the proper legal procedures. Redden has given lawyers from all sides a few weeks to give him ideas on how to do that. While everyone in the courtroom complained about how long it's taking to settle on something, Redden's new instructions are certain to drag things out further. How much longer is anyone's guess.

Procedure Versus Substance

It's not as if the big issues were ignored. Todd True with Earthjustice, said the feds were willing to let salmon populations fall too low for too long before taking action. He compared the feds to a tightrope walker who says, "I don't need a safety net. I'll design one before I hit the ground."

True and other the attorneys opposing the 2008 BiOp also called for more spills to help fish past dams during migration. They said the BiOp relies too much on habitat restoration and improvement, and needs to include plans to help fish now, rather than waiting for salmon and steelhead populations to collapse.

Finally, they said the feds need to start studying the issue of removing four dams on the Lower Snake River, and not put off looking at the issue any longer.

Coby Howell, lead attorney for the federal government, says the objections are not based on science. He says its not unusual to see big swings in salmon populations, even when everything is going well. Setting population standards that are too high doesn't tell you if the plan is working or not, according to Howell.

As for spilling more water over dams, Howell argued the government plan allows them to do that when necessary. But he also warned that spilling more water "comes with a cost." Larger spills usually mean less water for generating electicity.

"The more we spill," said Howell, "the more we have to offset with natural gas and coal, and that creates more carbon."

No Decision Today

Redden wrapped things up without deciding any of the major issues presented to him. But he said it will probably take less time than people think to bring the AMIP and BiOp into a single plan.

Redden doesn't want to drag this along much either. Noting that the public is probably asking, "What are all you doing in that courtroom?" he added, "I think we can do this. We've got the people here. Everyone wants to resolve this."

Dennis Newman
Salmon Judge: Obama Plan Is A Good Piece Of Work
Natural Oregon, November 23, 2009

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