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Judge Rips Federal Salmon Plan

by Joe Rojas-Burke
The Oregonian, May 27, 2005

A ruling says officials failed to weigh the impact of dams on fish recovery,
a decision that could alter how hydro needs are met.

A federal judge on Thursday rejected as inadequate the Bush administration's $600 million-a-year effort to prevent the extinction of salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The decision marks the third time in 12 years that courts have rejected federal efforts to allow large hydropower dams to operate while killing and injuring fish protected under the Endangered Species Act. The cost of the salmon-saving measures in the Columbia Basin is in the billions of dollars to date and makes it the nation's single largest wildlife recovery program.

The ruling has the potential to require a drastic overhaul of efforts to balance the needs of endangered fish with demand for electricity, irrigation water and barge transportation provided by federal dams across Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

A history of overfishing and habitat destruction caused by logging, mining, cattle grazing and dam building has driven many salmon in the Columbia River Basin toward extinction. Thirteen of the remaining populations are listed or proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

In a sharply worded opinion, U.S. District Judge James Redden deemed the salmon plan "contrary to law," in part because it failed to consider the impact of dams on the chances for recovery of depleted salmon stocks. The government's plan, issued last year after losing a 2003 lawsuit, focused on a lower standard: whether dam operations would push salmon further toward extinction.

The judge also rejected the government's assertion that only certain "discretionary" aspects of dam operations should be considered for their impact on salmon, not the existence of the dams.

Environmental groups and some Northwest tribes assert that the most effective way to return fish to self-sustaining numbers is to remove the four dams on the lower Snake River, where salmon and steelhead runs have dwindled despite efforts to restore habitat and minimize the impacts of dams.

Jan Hasselman of the National Wildlife Federation said the judge's "thorough repudiation" of the government's approach to salmon recovery should force lawmakers to reconsider the possibility of dam removal.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who joined conservationists in challenging the federal plan, called the ruling "a great catalyst" for bringing Northwest states and federal agencies together to develop salmon recovery measures that avoid the need to breach dams or severely curtail power generation and other economic benefits.

"I think it's a matter of being smart and finding the right balance," Kulongoski said Thursday evening after touring several Columbia River dams with federal officials. Rather than leave dam management decisions to the courts, he said, "agencies and elected officials are the ones who should be resolving this."

The Bush administration last year flatly rejected the possibility of demolishing dams to help restore salmon runs, known to flourish in cold swift-flowing waters. To comply with a 2003 court order, the National Marine Fisheries Service, working with the Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, proposed a detailed plan to compensate for the dams' lethal effects on salmon.

The agencies said they will expand efforts to reduce predators, such as Caspian terns and pikeminnow, that prey on young salmon. The agencies said they will outfit all the major dams with structures, called spillway weirs, that help juveniles pass downstream without getting sucked into turbines. The proposal also calls for continuing habitat restoration work and transporting as much as 90 percent of the young of some salmon stocks by barge or truck past the dams.

Federal agencies put the annual cost of salmon protections at $600 million, not including losses of revenue from changes in dam operations that reduce power production.

U.S. officials Thursday issued a statement expressing disappointment with Redden's ruling. A spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service said the agencies are still considering whether to appeal.

Conservationists, fishing groups and Native American tribes have filed a separate suit seeking two immediate changes in dam operations to improve salmon survival: releasing more water over dam spillways and boosting river flow with releases from reservoirs. That could affect river operations this summer, as the region continues to face potential drought conditions.

Federal officials have opposed the request in court filings, questioning the benefits for salmon. In a written statement Thursday, Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, dismissed the conservationists' request as "risky and speculative."

BPA Administrator Steve Wright said the measures would cost $100 million in forgone revenues. The U.S. District Court set a June 10 hearing on the request.

"Folks in Washington, D.C., need to take responsibility for these dams, which are holding this region back, and come up with a lasting solution," the National Wildlife Federation's Hasselman said.

James Buchal, a lawyer representing two groups of irrigators along the Columbia and Snake rivers, said the ruling allows the government to ignore the impact of fishing on listed salmon. On behalf of irrigators, Buchal argued that the government plan put too much blame on the hydrosystem, and that regulators should cut commercial and tribal fishing. "These effects of dams that are left that they are trying to mitigate are too small to measure," he said.

Industry groups that supported the government's hydropower plan said the consequences of the ruling remain unclear.

"If it's 'Do more at the expense of ratepayers,' it's going to mean higher electricity rates and a jab to the economy," said Shauna McReynolds, spokeswoman for a coalition of utilities and other industries that rely heavily on the federal dams.

Industry officials said the ruling hinged on legal questions and said nothing about the effectiveness of fish recovery measures.

"It is a massive effort, built on decades of scientific research and analysis," said Scott Corwin, vice president PNGC Power, a group of 15 nonprofit rural electric cooperatives. "Federal state governments, tribes, private landowners are making amazing efforts to recover fish, and all of that will continue," he said.

Joe Rojas-Burke
Judge Rips Federal Salmon Plan
The Oregonian, May 27, 2005

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