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Judge Challenges Plan on Dams

by Joe Rojas-Burke
The Oregonian, September 28, 2004

The Bush administration reverses policy,
now saying that dams pose no threat to the survival of salmon

A federal judge in Portland overseeing protection of Northwest salmon is questioning the Bush administration's conclusion that dams pose no threat of driving the fish to extinction. The judge's concern signals continued uncertainty over dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers and conservation measures that cost more than $600 million a year.

At issue is a draft plan by federal authorities for balancing the needs of salmon against the demand for electricity, irrigation water and barge transportation provided by the system of 14 federal dams sprawled across Oregon, Washington and Idaho. The draft, published three weeks ago, flatly rejected the possibility of demolishing dams to help restore salmon runs.

U.S. District Judge James Redden has raised several questions about the legal and scientific footing for the draft "biological opinion" and will lay out his concerns at a status conference today with government lawyers and those for conservation groups and Native American tribes.

Redden, in a written order, said the government may have "diverged significantly from the intent and terms" of his ruling last year rejecting the federal blueprint for protecting salmon. The judge aimed several questions at the government's revised conclusion that the dams pose no jeopardy to the continued existence of salmon -- a striking reversal from the government's previous position that the threat of dams is significant enough to consider targeting some for removal.

A spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency responsible for endangered salmon, said the draft biological opinion meets legal requirements.

Conservationists, commercial and sport fishing groups and Native American tribes have expressed outrage over the government's new stance.

"All we're saying is, use best science, not best politics, when managing these fish stocks," said Trey Carskadon, a board member for the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.

Fishing and conservation groups contend that the surest way to rebuild fish stocks is to remove four dams on the lower Snake River.

Bush administration officials dismissed dam removal from consideration, arguing that the Endangered Species Act requires the fisheries service to consider only how the dams will be operated -- not their existence.

Federal officials, however, have proposed changes in the operation of the dams to compensate for their lethal effects on salmon. The agencies plan to expand the control of predators that kill salmon, for example, and to outfit dams with structures that help juveniles pass safely downstream.

Joe Rojas-Burke
Judge Challenges Plan on Dams
The Oregonian, September 28, 2004

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