U.S. Judge Throws Out
by Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- A federal judge yesterday rejected the Bush administration's $6 billion plan to improve the Columbia Basin hydroelectric dam system, saying it violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect threatened and endangered salmon.
Noting that federal law puts salmon "on an equal footing with power production," U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland ruled in favor of a challenge by environmentalists, Indian tribes and fishermen to a NOAA Fisheries plan for balancing dams against salmon.
That plan, called a biological opinion, contended that $6 billion in improvements to the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers and other measures would eliminate threats to the future survival of threatened and endangered salmon.
Redden rejected the underlying principle of the NOAA plan -- that the dams are part of the ecosystem. Accepting that assumption would make the government responsible only for the small percentage of mortality to salmon from changes in dam operations, not for the greater damage from the dams themselves.
Salmon are often killed or injured as they pass through the dams while swimming out to sea and returning to spawn.
This is the third time the courts have tossed out the government's strategy for protecting the fish.
Bob Lohn, Northwest regional director of NOAA Fisheries, said the agency's efforts to protect salmon were yielding measurable improvements, restoring more than 3,000 miles of salmon habitat and producing locally generated recovery plans.
The biological opinion rejected by the judge calls for spilling a full measure of water over four dams on the Columbia and two on the lower Snake to help juvenile salmon migrating to the ocean. Lohn said switching to some "untried operation" in a drought year like this "would be risky and speculative for salmon survival."
Redden will hear arguments June 10 on changing dam operations now that the biological opinion has been struck down. Issues include how much water to spill over dams to help fish rather than running it through turbines to produce power.
Bonneville Power Administration Administrator Steve Wright said spilling more water for fish, as plaintiffs suggest, would cost Northwest electricity customers $100 million.
Environmentalists hailed Redden's decision as a major victory in their long-running battle with the Bush administration.
"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.
In his ruling, Redden also found that NOAA Fisheries was arbitrary and capricious in deciding that long-term improvements to critical salmon habitat, such as dam improvements, would offset other damage.
The judge added that the plan stands in sharp contrast to prior plans, is not comprehensive enough to assure the protection of salmon, and does not address the prospects for salmon recovery.
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