Judge says Bush Salmon Plan
by Craig Welch & Hal Bernton, Seattle Times staff reporters
For the third time in little more than a decade, a federal judge has thrown out the government's plan to protect troubled salmon runs from the Columbia River hydrosystem, this time ruling that the Bush administration all but ignored the damage wrought by the extensive array of dams, powerhouses and spillways.
U.S. District Judge James Redden yesterday ordered the Bush administration to again re-examine the role power projects play in the decline of a dozen runs of salmon and steelhead.
The ruling reignites a high-stakes battle for water in a region where farmers have struggled with drought, power producers already are feeling a financial squeeze and salmon advocates have stepped up the push for rivers that are more fish-friendly.
It also has prompted renewed calls by environmental activists to remove four older dams on the Snake River, which flows into the Columbia.
Next month, Redden will hear arguments from environmentalists who have asked him to issue an injunction forcing the government to spill more water over the dams to flush struggling young fish out to sea.
"What's at stake in this debate is nothing less than the Northwest way of life -- good jobs, good fishing and plenty of salmon in the rivers," said Jan Hasselman, a staff attorney with the National Wildlife Federation in Seattle. "If the government follows the law and is honest and accountable to the people of this region, they have to admit those dams are a drain on this region's resources and are holding us back."
The core of the Bush administration plan is a judgment on how many salmon can be killed by the hydropower system without jeopardizing the prospects of recovering the wild runs.
Frustrated administration officials pointed to thousands of miles of stream restoration, new technological advances -- such as "fish slides" -- to help salmon get past dams, and new planning processes as evidence they were making progress in the Columbia even with the dams in place.
They complained an injunction could cost ratepayers $100 million a year and have consequences for other water users such as farmers and barge operators.
"To choose an untried operation during a low-water year such as this would be risky and speculative for salmon survival," Bob Lohn, Northwest regional director of NOAA Fisheries, said in a written statement.
Steve Allen, an Eastern Washington wheat farmer who heads the Washington State Farm Bureau, said, "We live and die by water, and it's unfortunate the courts are making these kinds of decisions."
Four runs of salmon, including Snake River sockeye and Upper Columbia River steelhead, are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, which means they are at risk of going extinct. Nine more, such as Snake River fall chinook and lower Columbia River chum, are listed as threatened, which means they are likely to be at risk of extinction in the future.
Environmentalists, fishermen and tribal officials point to this year's dramatic drop in spring chinook as evidence the administration's plan wasn't working and something more dramatic is needed. About 85,000 fish are now expected to return, compared with a preseason forecast of more than 250,000. The small runs have idled commercial and recreational fishing on the Columbia.
"Up and down the river right now there are people not fishing because we haven't protected the salmon," said Todd True, the attorney for the law firm Earthjustice who successfully argued the case for environmentalists.
The plan Redden rejected outlines how many protected salmon legally can be killed by Columbia and Snake River dams.
Young salmon used to cruise down cool, swifter rivers en route to ocean feeding grounds. But millions of young salmon now perish while passing through dam turbines, or trying to swim through slower-moving, warmer pools that back up behind dams. Dams also brought new predators the salmon never faced in centuries past.
In 2003, Redden rejected a plan that had been created by the Clinton administration to deal with dams because it promised future actions to help salmon with no guarantee those actions would ever take place.
The Bush administration then issued a plan to spend $6 billion over 10 years to tinker with the operations of the dams, but would still allow up to 51 percent of the young spring chinook to die while migrating downstream from the Snake River, and up to 92 percent of the young fall chinook migrating down the river.
And -- in a dramatic shift from his predecessor -- Bush said removing the old Snake River dams was out of the question, even if all else failed.
Redden's ruling does not directly address the issue of dam removal. But it orders NOAA Fisheries scientists not to treat the damage done by dams as something that can't be avoided, and instead to offer a plan that alleviates the hydrosystem's impact on fish.
"The judge's ruling was well grounded, comprehensive and unambiguous. He really nailed them," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission. "The net effect of all this is to put everything -- including dam removal -- back on the table."
The ruling comes at a time of a growing regional tug of war over the use of Columbia River water.
Idaho joined irrigators on the side of the federal government. Oregon joined environmental groups and the tribes to overturn the hydropower operating plan. Washington, after much debate, intervened as a "non-aligned" party, backing parts of the plan and pressing for changes in other parts.
Bill Tweit, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, said the state was worried about the numbers of young salmon that would die, but would not back the removal of any dams. Instead, the state proposes changing the operation of the power system so it is safer for salmon.
As the legal battles have dragged on, salmon have been on a roller-coaster ride. The number of fish returning to the Columbia basin rebounded sharply in 2000 and 2001 as ocean conditions improved, only to drop again this year.
"It's a good reminder to us that a few good years of returns don't constitute a recovery, and shouldn't allow us to relax," Tweit said.
1994: U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh rejects a draft plan as piecemeal, inadequate and too heavily geared toward the status quo.
2000: Clinton administration finalizes new plan, which leaves open the option of removing Snake River dams to help revive salmon runs.
April 2003: Judge James Redden rules that the Clinton plan violated the federal Endangered Species Act by relying on restoration efforts that were too uncertain, prompting development of a new plan under the Bush administration.
May 2005: Redden rules that the Bush administration plan violates the federal Endangered Species Act.
Next: Redden is expected in the weeks ahead to give directions on how the plan should be changed to increase salmon protection.
Sources: Seattle Times archives, federal documents and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
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