Judge Demands Agencies
by Michael Milstein, Oregonian staff
In especially blunt talk aimed as high as President Bush, a federal judge in Portland said he will not put up with any more botched government attempts to reduce the harm Columbia River dams wreak on native salmon.
Federal agencies had better do it promptly this time, and do it right, U.S. District Judge James Redden ordered Friday. And the government had better realize that four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River may have to be torn out if Congress and the president do not supply the money and commitment to aid salmon in other ways.
" 'Speeching' on the dams will not avoid breaching the dams," the judge wrote, a likely reference to President Bush, who in a 2003 speech at one of the dams pledged they would not be breached. "Cooperation and assistance may."
He gave federal agencies one year -- half the time they asked for -- to come up with an effective plan to aid salmon. He then tightened the leash by ordering them to report progress to him every 90 days. Redden outlined five key faults they must correct.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, which has jurisdiction over protected salmon, told Redden it would be inappropriate for him to give step-by-step instructions that would "inject the court into the deliberative process of the agencies."
Redden countered that the agency's failures have proven he must take a more direct role to make sure the next attempt is "not a secret process with a disastrous surprise ending."
Redden's forceful directive is no surprise -- it's a detailed follow-up to what he had told attorneys in court a week ago. But the straight-talking judge made clear that leaders at all levels of government have an obligation to act.
He said government efforts to offset the impacts of the dams were derailed because Congress and the president were not providing the funds to do the job right.
"We are all aware of the demands of other users of the resources of the Columbia River and Snake River, but we need to be far more aware of the needs of the endangered and threatened species," Redden wrote.
He said the agencies responsible for salmon survival and for managing the Columbia and Snake dams have mishandled their task too many times and wasted too much time. They ignored the Endangered Species Act and tailored their assessments to conclude salmon will be all right when they really won't.
"The government's inaction appears to some parties to be a strategy intended to avoid making hard choices and offending those who favor the status quo," he said. "Without real action from the action agencies, the result will be the loss of the wild salmon."
The National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration crafted a 10-year, $6 billion plan to assist young salmon by, among other things, keeping them from getting sucked into dam turbines.
But Redden rejected the plan in May as unreliable, the third time in 12 years courts turned down the government's fix for Columbia salmon.
Another failed effort by federal agencies would expose the government to legal liability under the Endangered Species Act for injuring protected salmon. That could require the courts to step in and "run the river," the judge said, something Redden said he cannot tolerate.
"Such a dysfunction of government is not a rational option," he wrote. "There must be cooperation between the parties and all of the three branches of government to avoid such an embarrassment."
Redden specifically faulted federal agencies for limiting their examination of the effects of dams on salmon.
Among the tasks he set before them was to expand their analysis of whether dams affect extinction possibilities to also consider whether dams thwart recovery measures.
Federal attorneys have 60 days to appeal Redden's ruling and are considering whether they will, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the Fisheries Service. In the meantime, he said, "we'll roll up our sleeves and do our very best" to comply with the judge's order.
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