Judge says Columbia Salmon
by Andre Meunier
A federal judge had some kind words today for the federal government's strategy to balance operations of its power-generating dams with the needs of endangered salmon they harm.
"I think it is very close," said U.S. District Court Judge James Redden after spending a day grilling government, tribal and environmental attorneys in a downtown Portland courtroom.
The government needs an approved plan to legally operate its network of dams that provide cheap, relatively green power but are in part to blame for the long-term decline of salmon in the 259,000 square mile Columbia River basin.
Redden praised the collaborative work between federal agencies and Northwest tribes that went into developing the salmon plan, called a biological opinion, but he had some clear concerns about it.
He questioned the government's threshold for judging whether their dams imperil the survival of 13 species of salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.
And attorneys also debated the effectiveness of scores of new estuary and tributary habitat projects the government conceives happening in the near future but critics say aren't guaranteed to be funded or completed.
"I indicated that the most seriously flaw in it is the habitat," said Redden, asking why the government isn't studying the possible removal of four dams on the lower Snake River as a possible Plan B should habitat improvements fail to aid fish adequately.
"I don't know that the breaching of the dams is the solution, I don't know," he said. "But if you took a look at the BiOp and said, OK, at some point, five years, seven years, you take a look at what we are doing and how it's worked, and they say, 'Boy, it's just not working,' I don't think the answer can be, 'Well, let's go do some more habitat work.'"
Redden isn't likely to rule on the plan until at least April, and he told attorneys they could expect additional written questions from him in the meantime.
But one thing did get decided today: the federal government will continue to run its dams in a more fish-friendly way this spring and summer, which means some forgone power production.
"We are willing to do that this year, but I wanted to make clear that this is a compromise on the part of the federal government," said Coby Howell, a Department of Justice attorney.
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