Most Northwest Indian tribes accepted a more negotiable role. Judge Redden hopes the Obama administration will follow suit.
By Rocky Barker
PORTLAND – U.S. District Judge James Redden has struck down two salmon and dam plans for the Columbia and Snake rivers.
But he wouldn’t say yet whether he’s going to make it three.
Redden told attorneys for salmon advocates, federal agencies, Indian tribes and Northwest states that he’s still not sure the federal government can follow through on all its promises to fix salmon habitat to offset the impacts of dams.
He recommended federal attorneys ask their new clients – President Barack Obama’s environmental officials – if they might want to compromise on their plan to protect 13 endangered stocks of salmon and steelhead.
Then he gave salmon advocates a reason to consider settlement talks themselves.
“I may end up saying this is a fine one as it is,” Redden told the packed courtroom.
The fate of the dam plan, called a biological opinion, affects everything from electricity costs and water for irrigation to shipping between Idaho and the Pacific.
Todd True, an attorney for EarthJustice representing environmental groups, sporting businesses and commercial fishing groups, got the settlement message.
“He certainly would like to see that happen,” True said. “We would like to see it, too, if we could get all the issues on the table.”
Redden said he wouldn’t make a decision before the end of this month, but in the end said he would make his ruling based on the Endangered Species Act, the toughest environmental law ever written.
Redden waited until the end of the day to bring up the most controversial subject – breaching four dams on the Snake River in Washington, which he urged federal attorneys to consider in the plan as a contingency.
“I don’t know if breaching the dams is the solution. É ” Redden said. “I hope it’s never done.”
But he seemed to agree with the federal side’s argument that putting water in spawning tributaries like Idaho’s Pahsimeroi River near Challis and restoring tidal marshes and other salmon habitat in the Columbia’s estuary were the major issues to be resolved.
What he wasn’t sure of was that the federal government and its new partners – all of the Columbia River tribes except Idaho’s Nez Perce – could guarantee that the more than $1 billion of habitat restoration that had been promised could be done.
“I want you folks to have some thoughts about how we can make reasonably certain it will occur,” Redden said.
Earlier, Justice Department attorney Coby Howell said federal dam operators would spill water over eight dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers to help migrating endangered salmon this spring even though it’s not required.
Spilling water over the dams away from hydroelectric turbines reduces the capacity of the dams to generate electricity and revenues for the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that markets power from the dams.
“We want to make clear this does represent a significant compromise on our part,” Howell said.
The salmon are a living icon of the wild character of the Pacific Northwest that still provide millions of dollars in economic benefits to fishing-related businesses and spiritual sustenance to the region’s Indian tribes.
But to restore their numbers to sustainable levels across the Columbia Basin – an area the size of France – will take sacrifice on the part of the region’s more than 9 million residents.
BPA already has announced an electric rate increase to cover the $1 billion for recovery measures across the region included in a collaborative agreement reached with tribes and the states of Washington, Idaho and Montana.
Yakima tribal attorney Tim Weaver has been challenging federal salmon plans since the 1980s – until this one. He said tribes now have a seat at the table when fish policy is made.
“I think we have a historic opportunity to bring back the fish instead of bringing back the lawyers to fight about it,” Weaver said.