Salmon Judge Sets Stage for Settlement
by Rocky Barker
Idaho Statesman, February 23, 2009
U.S. District Judge James Redden seems to be asking federal dam managers, fish managers, tribes, states, environmentalists and anglers to consider a settlement of the salmon and dams lawsuit that will determine the fate of the economy of the Columbia River Basin and the future of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake rivers.
Redden sent a letter to all of the parties telling them the questions he will ask at a hearing March 6 in Portland on whether he should approve the plan for dam operation and salmon management called the 2008 Biological Opinion, or BiOP. Redden's questions show he still has serious scientific and legal problems with the document written by federal agencies under the guidance of the Bush Administration.
But salmon advocates shouldn't feel comfortable they are going to get what they want.
"Federal Defendants and the sovereigns have worked very hard on this biological opinion and it shows we have come a long way from the 2004 BiOp," Redden said.
But he expressed concerns with the idea that the agencies could decide the dams are not jeopardizing the survival of the endangered salmon and steelhead if the species are "trending towards recovery." Is there no jeopardy if the numbers are below 100 fish like Snake River sockeye? He asked. The biological opinion states that the salmon are not jeopardized if its is carried out.
And Redden wonders how the federal dam managers can justify eliminating the spilling of water over dams to aid salmon migration which costs millions in lost hydroelectric revenues, despite an independent science panel's assertion that it's beneficial.
Finally, Redden continues to question the guarantees federal agencies have made that the habitat improvements laid out in the plan will actually happen. He notes that, for instance, the plan commits to increasing spring chinook numbers in Idaho's Pasimeroi River by 41 percent without a list of the projects that would make that happen.
"My goal is to have enough time at oral argument to discuss how to resolve this matter if the 2008 BiOp fails," Redden wrote.
Would the federal government, for instance, include a contingency plan in the biological opinion, to commit to seek congressional authority to breach the lower Snake River dams in Washington if the mitigation plans failed?
"Why not begin analyzing the scientific and technical feasibility of such an option now?" he asked.
But he doesn't let the environmentalists, the fishermen, Oregon and the Nez Perce tribe who are suing off the hook either.
"Would Plaintiffs be satisfied if Federal Defendants agreed to implement some or all of the measures in the proposed preliminary injunction?" Redden asks lawyers whose stated goal is to bring a train wreck to the region so it can force it to make the painful changes necessary to save the fish. "Would Plaintiffs endorse such a BiOp?"
Then he turns back to the federal government now headed by President Barack Obama: "Are Federal Defendants willing to amend the BiOp to include some or all of those measures (e.g.,spill) as part of a settlement agreement?"
Is Redden ready for a train wreck, or is the train finally leaving the station?
The March 6 hearing in Portland will be dramatic.
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