March 6, 2009
by Mary Hudetz
PORTLAND, Ore. – The federal agency in charge of saving salmon in the Columbia River Basin from extinction should have a plan in place to remove dams on the lower Snake River if necessary, a federal judge said Friday.
U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden, who heard arguments in a longrunning dispute over how to balance energy and utility needs in the with salmon and steelhead, said he has not eliminated the possibility that the hyrdroelectric dams could come down to ensure restoration and survival of imperiled salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.
"I don't know that breaching of the dams is the solution," he said. "I hope it's never done, but that's the last fallback."
Former President George W. Bush had vowed the dams would stay. President Barack Obama has yet to weigh in.
Environmentalists have argued that salmon populations cannot recover without removing some dams, especially the migration bottleneck to Idaho created by four dams on the .
Redden told NOAA Fisheries Service that their plan for balancing endangered salmon runs against electricity production on 14 federal Columbia Basin still needs work, particularly in the area of habitat improvement.
Federal agencies have acknowledged that the dams themselves threaten the survival of fish, but relied on extensive habitat restoration, modifications to dams spillways, and changes in salmon hatchery operations without major changes to the amount of water going through turbines.
At the start of the daylong hearing, the federal government agreed to let more water pass through Columbia and Snake River dams to help young salmon migrate to the ocean.
Colby Howell, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney, said the move was a compromise because the spilled water doesn't go through turbines to generate power and adds millions of dollars to Bonneville Power Administration costs.
Conservationists, meanwhile, have maintained more spills remain the biggest factor in greater numbers in recent salmon returns.
Federal officials submitted a 10-year plan in May after others were rejected by Redden. They said the plan would help fish passing through the dams survive. Environmentalists sued, saying the plan did too little to restore salmon populations.
"It seems to ensure extinction," said Howard Funke, a lawyer for the Spokane Indian Tribe, one of two tribes in the region to side with the environmentalists.
But federal officials defended the new plan, saying it will help the survival of fish.
They also noted the new plan has been backed by Idaho, Washington and Montana and by most Columbia River tribes — a new development in the long running argument.
Four Northwest Indian tribal governments — Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Colville — agreed to the plan, which committed the federal agencies to giving the tribes $900 million to spend toward salmon.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho also sided with the federal agencies. But like the Spokane, the Nez Perce Tribe would not back the federal plan.
Despite his comments on the biological opinion, Redden on Friday praised the federal and state officials' and tribal leaders' collaboration.
"We've worked incredibly hard on this," Howell told Redden. "We deserve a chance."
Todd True, attorney for the legal group , however, said it would do little to improve conditions for salmon.
"Salmon don't swim in collaboration," Todd True said. "They won't return in greater numbers because of a new collaboration — no matter how sincere."
Columbia Basin salmon returns once numbered an estimated 10 million to 30 million, but overfishing, habitat loss, pollution and dam construction over the past century have caused their numbers to plunge.
Dozens of populations are extinct, and 13 are listed as threatened or endangered, making it necessary for federal projects such as the hydroelectric system to show they can be operated without harming them.
The last three plans for balancing salmon and dams failed to pass legal muster.
Each of the dams kills only a small percentage of the millions of young salmon headed to the ocean, but that adds up to a major death toll.