Plan for Dams, Salmon Thrown Outby Staff and Wire reports
The Spokesman Review, May 27, 2005
Judge sides with environmentalists, tribes against feds
The federal government's newest plan for operating the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers without pushing salmon closer to extinction violates the Endangered Species Act, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland ruled in favor of environmentalists, tribes and fishermen who challenged the plan.
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, in a press release issued late Thursday, called the ruling an opportunity to "recommit ourselves to craft a solution on how to manage the hydroelectric system." The state had filed a court brief in March supporting the lawsuit.
"I believe the judge did the right thing," Gregoire said.
The ruling appears to send NOAA Fisheries back to the drawing board to come up with a new plan for balancing power needs with those of salmon.
The federal government had argued that making $6 billion in improvements to the dams would eliminate threats to the survival of threatened and endangered salmon.
Redden rejected the government's contention that the dams are part of the ecosystem and cannot be removed. Under the plan, the government would have been responsible only for improving dam operations, not for damages to salmon caused by the dams themselves, including 11 on the U.S. portion of the Columbia and four on the Snake, between Pasco and Lewiston.
Redden found that NOAA Fisheries was arbitrary and capricious in deciding that the dam improvements and environmental enhancements would offset other damage.
A federal press release said authorities from four federal agencies were disappointed by Redden's decision and intend "to explore all options with their legal advisors regarding the court's ruling."
"Our efforts to protect salmon are yielding measurable improvements, and we are hard at work on recovery plans," Bob Lohn, Northwest director of NOAA Fisheries, said in the press release. "Together, Northwest stakeholders have helped to restore over 3,000 miles of salmon habitat and are producing locally driven recovery plans for the entire Northwest."
Salmon are often killed or injured as they pass through dams while swimming out to sea and returning to spawn, and can be harmed by warm water in the miles-long pools behind dams. The reservoirs make migration difficult for fish that once were whisked to the ocean on fast river currents; many of the fish now make the trip in barges, a practice with mixed reviews from biologists.
A proposal to breach the four Snake River dams -- a move that would restore the river's current while rendering the dams useless for power-production and barging -- was once a hot-button issue in the Inland Northwest. The controversy has largely eased since President Bush was first elected, and administration officials made clear that they would not consider breaching the dams.
But environmentalists have never given up the dam-breaching cause and raised the issue again Thursday, after Redden's ruling was made public.
"The agencies have to go back and come up with an honest analysis of the trade-offs between keeping obsolete dams and restoring salmon and restoring communities in the Columbia Basin," said Jan Hasselman, a lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
"The federal government is running out of options," said Bert Bowler, a retired Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist who now works with the conservation group Idaho Rivers United.
The Snake River dams -- Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite -- were labeled "low-value, high-cost dams" by Bowler.
Thursday marked the second time in two years that Redden has rejected a NOAA Fisheries proposal for balancing salmon and electricity needs.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the agency must decide whether the federally operated dams jeopardize the survival of 12 threatened and endangered runs of salmon, and if they do, propose ways to overcome the harm. The review is known as a biological opinion.
In May 2003, Redden ruled that a biological opinion issued by NOAA Fisheries in 2000 was illegal because the federal government could not guarantee that proposed habitat enhancements and upgrades would be done.
The administration then issued a biological opinion, which set a new course for salmon recovery by doing away with the idea of restoring the rivers to a more natural condition, and taking the stance that the dams cannot be removed.
It was that plan, which called for spending $6 billion over 10 years on dam modifications, that was rejected Thursday by Redden.
Gregoire's press release said she and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, along with representatives from the Montana governor's office, happened to be meeting at Grand Coulee Dam when Redden's decision was announced. No response was immediately available from those states, nor from Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who reportedly was out of the country.
"It's important that the Columbia River system be managed in a way that protects both fish and the economy of Washington and the Pacific Northwest," Gregoire said.
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