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Fishing for a Dam Solution in Court

by Editors
The Daily Inter Lake, November 16, 2005

There are times when the judiciary bites off more than it should. And that is the case for a federal judge in Portland who has taken it upon himself to oversee operations of federal hydroelectric dams in the Columbia Basin and arbitrate over a tangled knot of biological disputes.

U.S. District Judge James Redden is presiding over a lawsuit filed by a coalition of conservation and fishing organizations who contend that federal agencies are not doing enough to protect threatened salmon stocks. Meanwhile, Montana officials are engaged in the lawsuit, arguing that a federal "biological opinion" governing dam operations does not exactly suit the interests of Montana's reservoirs and fisheries either.

That's an extremely simplified summary of the matter. The reality is that it's an overwhelmingly complex tug-of-war for water that has been going on for years, with many players pulling in different directions. It is an issue that involves four states, 13 tribes, multiple federal agencies and a laundry list of advisory boards and panels.

True enough, the complex nature of dam operations -- their engineering and their politics -- has in itself contributed to the dissatisfaction of many players. But the likelihood of a judge sorting it all out in a coherent and justified fashion is slim at best. More likely, there will continue to be aggrieved parties once this case is supposedly settled.

Already, one of Montana's representatives on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council has hinted that the state may look for relief with a lawsuit of its own, in another courtroom, if Montana's reservoirs, rivers and fisheries are compromised by court-ordered dam operations.

Inexplicably, Judge Redden rejected requests from parties involved with the lawsuit to establish a scientific panel to advise the court on how water should best be manipulated through an array of dams in the Columbia Basin. It's a tall order for the judge to take it upon himself to meet the biological needs of bull trout, burbot, white sturgeon and multiple salmon stocks, not to mention flood control concerns and power generation demands in the Pacific Northwest.

This is a case where the judge should have looked for the best independent advice he could get. Otherwise, this is a lawsuit that could carry on for years in one court or another.

But maybe that is what lawsuits are supposed to do -- as long as the lawyers get paid.

Fishing for a Dam Solution in Court
The Daily Inter Lake, November 16, 2005

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