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Feds Reel Out Third Salmon Plan

by Michael Milstein
The Oregonian, September 7, 2007

Northwest - U.S. officials hope their latest proposal
to protect fish, yet keep dams, pleases a skeptical judge

The federal government took its last, best shot Thursday at convincing a tough Portland judge that it can keep churning hydroelectric power out of Columbia River dams while also undoing the damage the dams wreak on salmon.

The judge, U.S. District Judge James Redden, threw out the last two federal blueprints for operating the dams because they did not fulfill federal obligations to protect salmon. He has said he will not tolerate another faulty proposal and warned the government of "very serious" consequences if it gives him one.

He already voiced skepticism of the government's newest attempt, released in draft form in May and in final form Thursday.

It now goes to federal fish biologists, who must decide by Oct. 31 whether it jeopardizes salmon.

Hanging in the balance are the region's hydroelectric dams, a valuable source of cheap power; and salmon, a vital resource to tribes and fishermen. The Bush administration has refused to consider tearing out dams to help salmon, but courts have repeatedly belittled the plans the administration had come up with instead.

Federal officials insisted Thursday their newest plan is different, with nearly $1 billion in extra funding over the next 10 years for equipment to deflect fish away from deadly dam turbines and restore salmon habitat in tributaries and the estuary near Astoria.

Money will also go to control predators that gobble salmon and fine-tune hatchery programs.

"We spent thousands of hours trying to understand and implement the judge's orders," said Steve Wright, administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power from the dams. His statement came in audio interviews federal officials posted on their Web site promoting the new federal plan for dams.

He praised new collaborative efforts among tribes, states and federal agencies to forge a new path for salmon.

But tribes and fish advocates, including some who originally took the government to court, said the government still is not offering much new help for salmon and still overlooks the serious toll dams take on the fish.

"The federal agencies can and have to do better than this," said Charles Hudson of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, which represents the Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes. "Our first reaction is that it's filled with denial, contradictions and half-truths."

He said, for instance, that the new blueprint proposes making up for declining sockeye salmon by producing more fish in hatcheries, but without altering dam operations contributing to the declines. He said salmon are suffering as the government spends increasing time and resources on ineffective proposals.

On the other hand, Northwest River Partners, an organization of farmers, electric utilities and others, praised the government's more thorough analysis of what each salmon species needs to recover. But the group said federal agencies need to better address the impacts of fish hatcheries and fishing on troubled species.

Raising salmon in hatcheries and releasing them for fishermen to catch conflicts with hopes for salmon recovery, because fishermen also catch the wild salmon species that are in trouble, said Terry Flores, the group's executive director.

Some groups were looking for more aggressive changes in the way dams are operated, such as drawing down reservoir levels in spring and early summer so fish do not have to migrate through deep pools on their way to the ocean. But they did not find them.

"Show me where the major changes are, because I don't think they can point to them," said Nicole Cordan of Save Our Wild Salmon in Portland. "It's a beautiful wrapping job, but there's nothing inside."

Lingering in the background is a provision that Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho added to a federal budget bill telling federal agencies to carry out their earlier plan for dams on the Snake River that Redden ruled illegal. Conservation groups fear the provision may reflect an attempt by Congress to overrule Redden.

With Craig intending to resign, they hope other lawmakers may remove it.

Michael Milstein
Feds Reel Out Third Salmon Plan
The Oregonian, September 7, 2007

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