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He could take direct role in protecting imperiled salmon

By Erik Robinson

A federal judge has “serious reservations” of the lawfulness of a federal plan to balance imperiled salmon and federal dams in the Columbia River basin. U.S. District Judge James Redden sent a letter Monday to attorneys involved in a lawsuit over the plan issued by the Bush administration last year. The same judge ruled that two previous plans – in 2000 and 2004 – violated federal environmental laws.If this plan fails to pass muster, Redden has made it clear he will take a direct role in managing the river system to protect wild fish.

“Federal defendants have spent the better part of the last decade treading water, and avoiding their obligations under the Endangered Species Act,” Redden wrote. “Only recently, have they begun to commit the kind of financial and political capital necessary to save these threatened and endangered species, some of which are on the brink of extinction. We simply cannot afford to waste another decade.”

He urged the Obama administration to consider additional money for improving salmon habitat in the Columbia estuary and higher tributaries; submitting to independent scientific oversight; boosting the flow of water out of giant upstream reservoirs; and continuing to spill water away from dam turbines through the spring and summer to ease the way for ocean-bound juvenile fish.

Finally, the judge reiterated his suggestion to consider breaching four dams on the lower Snake River if all other measures fail.

Conservation groups lauded the judge’s position.

Ruling delayed

The judge agreed to delay his ruling earlier this month after the new administration of President Barack Obama asked for 30 to 60 days to review the federal plan before agreeing to defend it as his own.

“This president has been very clear that his administration will actually allow science to inform policy, and not the other way around,” said Nicole Cordan, policy and legal director for the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition in Portland. “I believe that he’s serious about that.”

The coalition argues that opening 140 miles of free-flowing river to salmon-spawning havens in central Idaho and northeast Oregon would be the surest way to restore large numbers of wild salmon. However, most Northwest politicians – Democrats and Republicans alike – have opposed dam-breaching because it would eliminate river shipping while doing away with about 5 percent of the Northwest’s electricity capacity.

Federal officials are worried that including dam-breaching as a contingency would simply reopen a divisive debate, just as they’re instituting habitat improvements lauded by tribal groups that previously fought the federal government in court.

“People want to focus on what we’ve agreed on and the common ground,” said Michael Milstein, a spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland.

Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551, or

To see the judge’s letter, go to

Vancouver, WA
May 20, 2009

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