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Judge to Hear Salmon Arguments

by Mitch Lies
Capital Press, December 9, 2005

The question of how best to operate Columbia and Snake river dams in a way that protects endangered salmon will be back before U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland next week.

Redden, who has rejected two federal plans in the past five years, on Dec. 15 will hear from federal lawyers seeking to reduce spills in 2006 and from environmental lawyers seeking to increase spills an increase that could cost the region as much as $450 million in added power costs.

Redden's decision in the case and how much power rates go up next year may hinge on whether federal biologists can convince him that increasing smolt survival rates by increasing spills does not necessarily equate to increasing adult salmon returns.

"We don't believe that the fish are any better off under (the environmental coalition's) plan," said Mike Hansen, a spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration. "We in fact believe our proposal is better biologically for the fish at significantly less cost."

Todd True, a lawyer for Earthjustice, which is representing environmentalists in the case, contends that the federal plan falls short of protecting fish and is part of a decade-long trend of putting more focus on protecting the status quo than protecting fish.

"Their proposal is not an effort to put forward a serious plan to increase survival and restore salmon for all the people of this region," True said. "They are at best doing minor tweaking (of past plans that the court has rejected) and tweaking in the wrong direction."

Redden has a history of backing environmental groups in what has become a nearly 12-year court battle over Columbia and Snake river dam operations. He threw out federal operation plans in 2000 and 2004 and has given the National Marine Fisheries Service until the end of 2006 to resubmit a plan.

Redden also awarded environmental groups a temporary injunction last summer that forced the government to increase spills a practice of spilling water over dams and past power-generating turbines for a 10-week period in June, July and August. Those spills cost the government $74 million, Hansen said. And while the spills were successful in getting more juvenile salmon to the river's estuary, according to Michele DeHart, manager of the Portland-based Fish Passage Center, the jury is still out on whether the spills were successful at improving salmon survival.

"The rest of the answer is how the adults return," DeHart said.

While True and the environmental coalition contend that there is a direct correlation between high survival rates of juvenile salmon and high adult returns, federal biologists dispute that.

"The focus has been improperly put on getting juveniles downriver in as high as numbers as possible. Our focus, we think, should be on how many adults we get back," said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for NOAA Fisheries, the lead federal agency responsible for protecting endangered salmon. "Our biologists are reasonably certain that our schedule for spill will result in an increase in adult returns."

The biologists, Gorman said, believe they can best increase adult return rates by ensuring that smolts arrive at the Columbia River's estuary at a time when it is most important for the fish to adapt to salt water. Their plan includes some spills in the spring, but relies more on barging juvenile salmon around dams in summer months.

"We believe that transport during certain times of the year and under certain water conditions can improve the likelihood of survival of juvenile salmon to adulthood," he said.

Under the plan submitted by the environmental coalition, flows and spills would be increased in spring and summer months a plan government officials estimate will add approximately $450 million to the region's power rates. In contrast, agency officials estimate power rates would increase by $46 million under NOAA's plan.

Questions surrounding salmon survival in the Columbia River system have led to 12 years of court debate, starting in 1994 when the courts tossed out the first of four biological opinions.

Federal officials don't expect a decision from Redden until well after the first of the year, Gorman said.

Mitch Lies Oregon Staff Writer
Judge to Hear Salmon Arguments
Capital Press, December 9, 2005

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