Judge Weighs Combined Salmon Planby Associated Press
The Olympian, May 4, 2006
PORTLAND -- Groups hoping to see four dams on the lower Snake River breached to make way for salmon asked a judge Wednesday to order the government to consider the upper and lower parts of the river together when deciding whether federal dams harm threatened and endangered salmon.
When NOAA Fisheries, the government's lead salmon agency, considered in 1999 the combined effects of diverting water to irrigation projects in southern Idaho and hydroelectric dams in Eastern Washington and Oregon, it concluded that they jeopardized salmon survival, argued Todd True, attorney for the salmon advocates.
"It is a single, coordinated set of operations," True said.
Lawyers for the federal government, the state of Idaho, the Nez Perce tribe and farmers countered that the comprehensive analysis could still be accomplished with separate plans for the upper and lower basin.
Changing it could jeopardize a landmark agreement that has committed more Idaho water to fish, they said.
The 2004 federal plan for operating the hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake and Columbia Rivers, known as a biological opinion, is not directly related to the 2005 analysis of releasing more water from 12 irrigation projects connected to the upper Snake in southern Idaho, Eastern Oregon and Wyoming, argued U.S. Justice Department attorney Coby Howell.
U.S. District Judge James Redden said he would need a couple of weeks to write his ruling, but it "seems to me more logical" to consider the effects on salmon of projects in both the upper and lower basins in one plan.
Redden expressed doubts over concerns that combining the two biological opinions would trigger an unraveling of the Snake River Basin adjudication, which brought together water users and the Nez Perce tribe in an agreement that more water would be released for salmon. But he gave lawyers repeated chances to explain why that would happen.
American Rivers, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, feels breaching four dams on the lower Snake in Eastern Washington is the cheapest and most effective way to help salmon by restoring the reservoirs to rivers and removing obstacles to adult fish swimming upstream to spawn and young fish swimming downstream to the ocean.
"We don't need more water from Idaho if we take the dams out," Michael Garrity of American Rivers said outside the courtroom. "If we don't restore a freeflowing lower Snake River, then we are going to need more water."
President Bush has pledged to keep the lower Snake dams. But the latest NOAA Fisheries plan to balance salmon against dam operations on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers was ruled in violation of the Endangered Species Act by Redden last year.
NOAA Fisheries, salmon advocates and water users are working together to come up with a new biological opinion.
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