Judge Kills Bush's Plan
by Rocky Barker
Proposal to breach dams could be revived
A federal judge Thursday struck down the Bush administration's plan for protecting salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers, reopening the debate over breaching four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington.
U.S. District Judge James Redden ruled the Bush administration erred when it said eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers do not jeopardize endangered salmon and steelhead.
He rejected their assertion that the Endangered Species Act requires them to evaluate only the effects of dam operations on salmon -- not the dams themselves.
He also called flawed the Bush administration's standards that said Endangered Species Act protection does not need to meet goals that would recover salmon, but must only keep their numbers stable. His ruling agrees with salmon advocates that include environmental groups, Indian tribes, the state of Oregon and fishermen.
Redden will hold a June 10 hearing for arguments on whether he should put in place an interim plan that increases restrictions on hydroelectric dam operations, shipping inland to Lewiston and releases water from federal reservoirs that supply water to millions of acres of farms. That ruling could force the region to dramatically restructure its river management as dramatically as a federal judge's decisions in the 1980s and early 1990s protected the northern spotted owl and transformed forest management.
Redden's decision comes as returns of salmon have dropped off dramatically this spring for still-unknown reasons after four years of dramatically improved runs.
"It is apparent that the listed species are in serious decline and not evidencing signs of recovery," Redden wrote.
President George W. Bush took dam breaching off the table when he took office in 2001. And his 2004 plan, called a biological opinion, formally removed dam breaching as an option for aiding the survival of salmon and steelhead in the Snake River Basin, which includes all of Idaho. A majority of fisheries biologists say dam breaching is the best if not the only way to recover viable populations of the ocean-going fish that are a cultural icon and the center of a multimillion-dollar economy that spreads from eastern Idaho to Alaska.
"This decision doesn't get us there, but it gets us a step closer," said Bert Bowler, a retired Idaho Department of Fish and Game salmon biologist who now works for Idaho Rivers United, one of the groups that sued the administration.
Redden refused to include in his decision a second lawsuit by many of the same groups against dam operations by the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers in the Upper Snake River, including Lucky Peak, Arrowrock and Anderson Ranch reservoirs on the Boise River. That means it would take another lawsuit to challenge the recently approved Nez Perce Agreement, which, among other things, limited Idaho water releases for salmon
"It does not order more water from Idaho," said Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association. "I think that's a big win for us."
Bush administration officials said they were disappointed with the decision and touted their salmon recovery measures.
"Our efforts to protect salmon are yielding measurable improvements, and we are hard at work on recovery plans," said Bob Lohn, Northwest regional director of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. "Together, Northwest stakeholders have helped Oceanic to restore over 3,000 miles of salmon habitat and are producing locally driven recovery plans for the entire Northwest."
The plan rejected by Redden is the fourth biological opinion since salmon were listed as threatened and endangered species in the early 1990s. The Clinton administration wrote a plan in 2001 (the 2000 FCRPS Biological Opinion) that said the four dams did not have to be breached because a suite of actions -- flushing water from Idaho reservoirs down the Snake to habitat improvement, harvest controls and hatchery reforms -- would be enough to save the fish.
But the Clinton plan left open the possibility of breaching four dams on the Snake River in Washington if the other measures didn't work. The 2004 Bush plan said the dams were not putting the salmon in jeopardy and dam breaching was not necessary.
That plan reduced the standards federal agencies had to meet and, Redden said, asserted a new exemption to the requirement of the Endangered Species Act that the government must take all actions necessary to protect endangered species.
Under the Bush administration's interpretation, a federal agency "would be able to exempt itself from accountability by characterizing some, even lethal, elements of any proposed action as 'nondiscretionary,'" Redden wrote.
The only exemption to the Endangered Species Act is for the president to convene an Endangered Species Committee, known widely as the "God Squad." The committee, made up of Cabinet members and others appointed by the president, could decide that federal objectives are more important than protecting the endangered species.
President George H. W. Bush convened the God Squad in the early '90s over the spotted owl, seeking more timber harvest on federal lands. The move proved to be unpopular and did not result in increased timber harvest.
"I haven't heard anyone say extinction is a viable option, and that's what it means if you go to the God Squad," said Jan Hasselman, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation in Seattle.
Ultimately, salmon advocates say the entire region will have to address the issue.
"We call on Congress and the states to take meaningful actions that are necessary to address the impacts of the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers," said Rebecca Miles, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe.
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