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Judge postpones deadline for new salmon-dams plan

By Joseph B. Frazier
Portland, Oregon (AP) 12-07

A federal judge has given the government an extra two weeks to submit a better plan for making Columbia River Basin dams safe for endangered salmon, but he warned the consequences “could be harsh” if he has to reject this plan after rejecting two others.

U.S. District Judge James Redden during December postponed a March 1 deadline to March 18 for a new biological opinion that would balance demands of dams and threatened or endangered fish runs.

He also extended the deadline for public comment by four days to Jan. 4.

Redden has thrown out two previous biological opinions as inadequate and wrote that a draft of a third effort does not look much better. He told parties to the extended litigation to keep talking at a status hearing.

Redden said in his letter that he could take over operations of the dams rather than send it back to the parties after a third failure but was less specific during the latest hearing.

He rejected the last biological opinion in 2004 and in 2005 ordered talks among the tribes, federal government and states to find something they – and he – could support.

Since then, the conflicting demands on the river such as power, fish, shipping and irrigation have been worked out by the parties on a year-to-year basis.

Disagreements arose over whether the draft used the best available science, as the law requires.

Robert Gulley, a U.S. Justice Department attorney, said scientific conclusions had been peer-reviewed and that claims the best science wasn’t used “are not true.”

But Todd True, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, said the conclusions are “not even close” and if the final opinion wasn’t substantially changed from the draft “litigation seems at least likely.”

Gulley said the government would offer to continue the 2007 agreement if a new one is not reached.

True, however, said more could be done to protect the fish and said his group may seek a court order to increase river flow through the dams before the end of the year, in time for the spring salmon runs.

A lack of increased spillage through the dams to help fish is another factor that has drawn Redden’s displeasure. Gulley said increased spillage is not a cure-all and can kill fish in some situations.

Many attorneys representing parties that included Indian tribes and states said they supported continuing talks to address individual concerns.

The Colville and Yakama tribes, for example, said the draft virtually ignored their fishing rights and upper Columbia salmon are among the most endangered in the basin.

In response to Redden’s letter, Gulley said the draft proposals have a high probability of success and the Bonneville Power Administration could budget for the estimated $500 million needed to put them into effect with current revenue or from rate adjustments.

Redden’s objection to a previous plan included a lack of guaranteed funding. He said Wednesday he would be “fairly upset” if government plans were not funded this time.

The money would cover mitigation projects including habitat improvements, hatchery reforms, predator control and modifications to some dams to help ocean-bound salmon smolts avoid often lethal spillways.

Gulley said the government would make needed changes in its programs as problems arose.

The plan was developed by the BPA, which sells the hydroelectric power from the dams, and the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operate the dams.

 

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