The Obama administration has come back with its final program for restoring endangered salmon on the Columbia River -- a plan substantially like the last one.
The revised biological opinion submitted by four federal agencies to the federal court in Portland, Ore., has been updated to reflect new scientific studies and to incorporate a flexible "adaptive management" strategy that will allow swift implementation of stronger measures if needed.
Officials hope that will be sufficient to head off yet another rejection by the court. "While much attention has focused on the courtroom, the region should be proud of what the federal government, states, tribes and communities together have accomplished for fish," the agencies said in a statement releasing the opinion.
"Last year alone, 9,609 miles of wetland habitat were protected and 244 miles of streams were reopened to fish. We've made much progress, and completion of this legal process now prepares us to make much more."
Conservationists had hoped the plan would be much bolder, with less emphasis on hatchery fish and stronger attention to the possibility of breaching dams on the Snake River in eastern Washington that cut off salmon from miles of pristine potential habitat.
"This was the Obama team's chance to change directions and protect salmon in the Columbia-Snake River basin and follow the law," said Todd True of Earthjustice, who is lead attorney for a group of fishing and conservation groups who have challenged the restoration plan in court.
While federal officials said the revised plan strengthens monitoring of climate change indicators, such as river temperatures, to determine the need for special intervention, critics said it does not go nearly far enough.
"The most recent science all points in the same direction -- climate change is upon us and it is already impacting our waters," Jim Martin, former chief of fisheries for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in a statement. "The only answer is that this administration has -- against its promises and exclamations -- allowed politics to trump sound science."
Business, agricultural and power utility users of the river have largely supported the administration's plan so far and called it "nonsensical" to talk of removing dams, upon which the region relies for electrical power and barge transport.
They said that replacing the electricity with fossil fuel plants would add 4.4 million tons of carbon dioxide annually to the atmosphere.
Federal officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the federal Bureau of Reclamation said they reviewed new scientific research that has emerged since the main biological opinion was completed in 2008 but found only "modest" changes in the science.
In addition to monitoring river temperatures and other factors for climate change, the agencies identified five additional new actions that will be taken to guard against "uncertainties" created by toxics, invasive species and hatchery fish.