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Salmon Plan III gets hook.

Byline: The Register-Guard

In a move reminiscent of the Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day," U.S. District Judge James Redden has ruled once again that the federal government's attempt to make its hydropower dams in the Columbia River basin safer for protected salmon violates the Endangered Species Act.

Environmentalists hailed Tuesday's sternly worded ruling - the third straight time the judge has rejected the federal plans, known as biological opinions - as opening the door to potential removal of four fish- killing dams on the lower Snake River.

Dam supporters denounced Redden's ruling. U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called it "extremely alarming." He declared dam removal "an extreme action that would be devastating to the Pacific Northwest's economy and is not proven to recover fish."

Some perspective seems in order.

Redden's ruling contained a justifiably harsh assessment of the federal government's efforts to produce a viable recovery plan for Columbia River salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act, efforts that have dragged on for more than a decade. He said the alternatives proposed by the government, most of them involving improving habitat in rivers, lacked scientific and financial support, and he found that a lack of credibility made the overall plan "arbitrary and capricious."

For years, Redden has warned federal agencies that the Snake River dams might have to be removed if the government fails to devise a plan that satisfactorily reduces the effects of dams on salmon. But his latest ruling gave no indications to suggest that dam removal is imminent.

In fact, it said the Obama administration's plan provides "adequate protection" through 2013. Redden sent the biological opinion back to federal agencies with instructions to rework it with a specific focus on identifying longer-term habitat improvements.

The possibility of dam removal to bring back salmon remains on the table, as it should. Redden ordered the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service, the agency responsible for the salmon plan, to submit a new plan by 2014. The new plan should consider "more aggressive" strategies, including leaving more water in streams, reservoir drawdowns - and yes, if necessary, removing the four dams on the lower Snake River.

The administration's current biological opinion outlined contingency plans that would be triggered when fish populations "decline significantly." Those plans included, as a last resort, dam removal. But under the plan, fish runs would have to reach perilously low levels before the removal process could begin.

Redden's ruling shouldn't be read as a wholesale rejection of the administration's plan. Indeed, the judge previously has gone out of his way to praise the plan, calling it "a positive development" and saying that the federal government "deserves credit for developing additional mitigation measures, enhanced research, monitoring and evaluation actions, new biological triggers and contingency actions."

In his ruling, Redden lauded the plan's "unparalleled collaborative effort" between the federal government, three states and five tribal nations to improve wild fish stocks.

But Redden, in what is likely to be the 82-year-old judge's last ruling on the case, made clear that he wants a plan that puts the salmon on a true trajectory toward recovery.
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 4, 2011
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