Judge slaps down Columbia River salmon plan yet again

Posted: Aug 3, 2011

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coho salmon

A federal judge yesterday struck down the government's fourth attempt at a plan to help imperiled salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

U.S. District Court Judge James Redden of Portland, Ore., ruled that the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service needs to resubmit a plan to manage flows on the heavily dammed Columbia and Snake rivers by January 2014.

In the meantime, federal agencies must operate the system according to the flawed plan and must also consider alternatives to bring it into compliance with the Endangered Species Act, possibly including removing some of the rivers' 14 hydroelectric dams.

Yesterday marks the court's fourth rejection overall -- and the third for Redden -- of the biological opinion for the Columbia and Snake rivers since 2000. The Obama administration had submitted a revision of the George W. Bush administration's 2004 plan in 2008, but the court found none of the plans would ensure endangered salmon and steelhead's survival.

Yesterday's decision concerns the 2010 plan, which is an update to the 2008 revision that includes tactics such as trucking salmon past dams, moving habitat of predators like the Caspian tern and increasing fish population monitoring.

In his decision, Redden wrote that NOAA's plan to preserve salmon is arbitrary and capricious beyond 2013 because it relies on unspecified habitat and estuary improvements that are not reasonably assured to occur. Moreover, some mitigation projects are already running behind the schedule laid out in the 2010 update, and funding may not be available for alternatives, he said.

"Federal defendants do not know what exactly will be needed to avoid jeopardy beyond 2013, or whether those unknown actions are feasible and effective, but they promise to identify and implement something," Redden wrote. "Defendants need not articulate every detail of a habitat mitigation plan. They must do more than they have here."

Even though he found the entire plan lacking, Redden ordered NMFS to adhere to it through 2013 in order to achieve some protections. That "will allow NOAA Fisheries to 'get out of the courtroom' and get to work for the next two and a half years," he wrote.

Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said Redden overstepped his bounds by ordering the agency to consider removing dams. "Not only is dam removal an extreme action that would be devastating to the Pacific Northwest's economy and is not proven to recover fish, Judge Redden has zero authority to order the removal of dams and the agencies have no authority to breach dams," he said in a statement. "Only Congress can authorize removal of the Northwest's federal dams and I can definitively state that this will not happen on my watch."

Environmental groups, whose lawsuit prompted yesterday's action, praised the decision but warned of more obstacles ahead as the agency redoes its work. Fishermen urged NMFS to consider taking down four dams on the Snake River in particular, as Redden has recommended before (Greenwire, May 20, 2009).

"Facing the problem squarely, including potential removal of the four fish-killing dams on the lower Snake River, will create many thousands more jobs, revive the fishing industry, save billions of dollars for taxpayers and lead in the development of clean, renewable, more efficient energy," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.


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