Last Chance for Feds on Salmonby Editorial Board
The Oregonian, December 14, 2007
Agencies could lose control of Columbia-Snake dams if their final plan doesn't meet judicial muster
Discouragingly, the Bush administration appears to be in jeopardy of bungling its last chance to remedy the harm that Columbia Basin dams inflict on endangered wild salmon.
For the sake of the Northwest economy, not to mention the protected fish, federal agencies must move swiftly and aggressively to address the shortcomings of the government's latest recovery plan. Otherwise, U.S. District Judge James Redden will have every reason to carry out his threat to impose "very harsh" consequences.
In his warning to the government this week, Redden didn't specify what those actions might be. Options, however, include lowering reservoirs, curtailing electricity generation, diverting water from irrigation and limiting barge traffic on the river.
Redden has already rejected two federal proposals as too weak. Now, after reviewing a draft version of the latest proposal, he couldn't have made his displeasure any clearer.
First, in a letter to agency attorneys last week, the judge said the proposed new federal strategy falls so far short it may be even weaker than the two fish-recovery plans he's already thrown out. He warned that the government isn't likely to get another chance after this one, and if the final plan remains inadequate, the dam system could be declared illegal to operate under the Endangered Species Act.
The letter raised the specter of the hydroprojects being taken over by the courts, with orders to provide extra water for protected fish and possibly even drain reservoirs. Obviously, the regional economic impact would be adverse and potentially enormous.
In a court hearing Wednesday in Portland, Redden followed up on that sobering letter. He read part of a list of mitigation measures proposed by the federal agencies, then declared: "We can do better than that."
He ordered the government to consider tougher, costlier options to help endangered salmon species. And he set a March 18 deadline for a final report that shows how the agencies propose to operate the dams legally.
It's critically important that the administration meets Redden's challenge this time. Failure to do so would lead the salmon controversy right back to the four Snake River dams that environmental and fishery groups insist must be breached.
We have consistently agreed with Redden that dam-removal should be unnecessary if the government acts boldly, making every other effort to protect endangered and threatened fish. But the Bush administration strengthens the hand of dam-breaching advocates with every inadequate draft of its fish plans.
This time, the coalition of federal agencies must get it right. The alternative is a hydroelectric dam system run by the courts, and nobody, including Judge Redden, wants that.
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