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Judge: Protect Salmon Better

by Erik Robinson
The Columbian, June 21, 2007

PORTLAND - U.S. District Judge James Redden made it plain Wednesday that he expects federal dam managers to do more to conserve endangered salmon in the Columbia River basin.

The Bush administration's lead attorney, meanwhile, made it equally clear that he believes federal agencies are on the right track.

"I think we're going in the right direction," Robert Gulley, a U.S. Justice Department attorney representing the federal government, said during a hearing in Redden's courtroom in downtown Portland.

At issue is the federal government's latest attempt to balance federal dams against imperiled salmon.

With a draft plan due at the end of October, Redden left little doubt that he is prepared to step in directly if the plan violates the Endangered Species Act. That could result in Redden ordering federal dams to spill water away from dam turbines, or boost the flow of water from upstream reservoirs.

"Consequences are going to be very severe," he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers and other federal dam managers vowed Monday to deliver a draft biological opinion by Oct. 31. The Endangered Species Act requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to issue a biological opinion, or bi-op, as to whether a federal action - in this case, operating 14 federal dams - jeopardizes the survival of 13 species of imperiled Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead.

Redden found two previous bi-ops, in 2000 and 2004, to be illegal.

"I want a bi-op that I can approve," Redden said Wednesday. "It just doesn't make any sense to toss out another bi-op and go through this circle again. I expect to have a bi-op that is acceptable, or very close to it."

Conservation groups aren't optimistic, based on a preliminary plan released earlier this year.

"We do recognize this is a draft, and, to quote Yogi Berra, 'It ain't over till it's over,' " plaintiffs' attorney Todd True said. "But to quote Yogi Berra again, 'This feels like deja vu all over again.' "

Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year on salmon recovery in the Columbia River basin, with much of that spending based on the notion that federal dams are a major cause of salmon decline. Dams kill fish as they pass through turbines or over spillways. They also harm fish by creating large reservoirs where predators lurk, water temperatures rise and slow currents stymie migration.

The National Wildlife Federation and other groups filed the lawsuit now before Redden.

Environmental groups have pushed for breaching four dams on the lower Snake River, but President Bush has visited the Snake River twice to vow that won't happen.

Environmental groups, joined by some tribes and the state of Oregon, have instead pushed for boosting the amount of water released from major upriver storage reservoirs to more closely simulate a natural river environment. In addition, they want dam managers to spill more water away from dam turbines - a practice generally believed to provide safer passage for ocean-bound smolts, but which saps the dams' ability to generate hydroelectricity.

In a letter to attorneys before Wednesday's hearing, Redden noted that the administration's preliminary plan proposes to reduce the amount of water spilled during the late spring and instead haul more fish around the dams on barges.

"At best, Federal Defendants' most recent Proposed Action provides few substantive operational improvements compared to the 2004 Proposed Action," Redden wrote. "At worst, it represents a retreat from the relatively successful recent spill and flow operations."

Erik Robinson
Judge: Protect Salmon Better
The Columbian, June 21, 2007

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