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Restoring the Lower Snake River

2salmonballet.webBy ERIC BARKER of the Tribune. June 18, 2014

A coalition of environmental, fishing and energy groups is once again challenging the federal government's plan to balance the needs of threatened and endangered salmon with the operation of dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers.

The groups that include the National Wildlife Federation and Idaho Rivers United filed a complaint Tuesday in U.S. District Court at Portland, Ore., challenging the government's dam and fish plan released in January. They contend the plan is little changed from previous versions, does too little for fish, rolls back spill at dams designed to help migrating juvenile salmon and steelhead and doesn't address climate change or consider dam breaching as a possible solution if other fixes prove insufficient.

"We feel we have been left with no choice but to return to court today in an effort to hold the federal government accountable under the law and ensure the near-term and long-term protections for salmon are in place," said Tom Stuart, a board member of Boise-based Idaho Rivers United.

Court is a familiar place for the groups, who have filed numerous other complaints against the government's efforts to write a biological opinion that lives up to the standards of the Endangered Species Act. Judge James Redden of Portland struck down three of the previous attempts by the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to write a plan that protects 13 runs of salmon and steelhead protected by the ESA.

But this time the plaintiffs will make their arguments to a new judge. Redden retired in 2012 and the long-running case was taken over by Judge Michael Simon. The plaintiffs are asking Simon to overturn the government's plan, which relies on a mix of habitat fixes to mitigate for salmon killed at the dams along with spill and fish passage weirs to help fish around and through the dams.

But they also hope to get Simon to rule on something that Redden never addressed - whether the government is correctly calculating the risk, or "jeopardy," the dams cause to the fish.

According to their complaint, the government's plan indicates operation of the dams does not pose a risk to the threatened and endangered runs as long as they are "trending toward recovery." But the plaintiffs argue the definition of "trending toward recovery" is arbitrary because it can be met even if the runs show the slimmest of improvements while still being at risk of blinking out.

This time, the groups are also asking the court to require the corps and the Bureau of Reclamation to complete an environmental impact statement that spells out the effects of implementing the 2014 biological opinion.

"The key requirements of an environmental impact statement are that the government actually develop and consider and seek public comment about a whole range of alternatives to its preferred plan of action," said Todd True, lead attorney for the groups. "The government hasn't done this for the operation of the federal dams and hydrosystem for 20 years. It's long past time to ask them to."

When contacted by The Associated Press, government officials declined to immediately comment on the lawsuit. Dam supporters, however, issued a news release supporting the latest biological opinion as both collaborative and successful.

"For proof of the plan's success, look to the healthy fish returns over the last decade, including the historic return of more than 1 million fall chinook to the Columbia River last fall," said Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest River Partners, an alliance of farmers, utilities, ports and businesses. "This year, spring chinook returns already are well over that of the 10-year average, and 1.6 million fall chinook and 1.2 million coho are forecasted to return."

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