Judge Tells U.S. to Fix Salmon Planby Hal Bernton
The Seattle Times, May 17, 2003
PORTLAND -- A U.S. District judge yesterday gave federal fisheries officials one year to rework a flawed plan to restore wild salmon runs in the Columbia basin. But it's still unclear whether the federal government will take more immediate action to ease fish passage through dams and slack-water river pools.
Judge James Redden ruled this month that the plan violated the Endangered Species Act by relying on restoration efforts that were too uncertain.
In a hearing yesterday, U.S. Justice Department counsel Fred Disheroon asked Redden to keep the plan in place while it is reworked. Otherwise, Disheroon warned of "dire consequences" for the Pacific Northwest as environmental and other litigants head to court to seek immediate changes in dam operations.
But Earthjustice attorney Todd True, representing a coalition of 16 plaintiffs, said the old plan should be set aside, and that the government must try to make at least some improvements in salmon restoration in the months ahead.
True said his group hopes the government will take such actions voluntarily. But he wants the plan set aside so plaintiffs can sue for actions they think are necessary to save the fish.
Redden declined yesterday to rule on whether the plan should be set aside. Instead, he requested the issue be more fully debated at a hearing this month.
But Redden sounded eager to move forward with salmon restoration, joking that he feared someone would catch the last fish "before we get done with this."
The restoration plan was put forth in 2000 by the National Marine Fisheries Service as the latest federal effort to protect and restore 12 wild species of threatened and endangered Columbia River salmon and steelhead. Some of these runs have improved markedly in recent years, due at least partly to improved ocean conditions. But some biologists say populations could plummet again once ocean conditions sour, and that obstacles encountered during freshwater rearing and migrations could push the runs toward extinction.
Some of the biggest freshwater obstacles are the network of dams, power stations and reservoirs in the Snake River basin and the Columbia that provide energy and irrigation, and an inland waterway.
But the federal fishery-restoration effort has been bitterly contested by environmentalists and tribes, who say the needs of salmon have too often been shortchanged in favor of power generation or irrigation.
To help counteract the hydrosystem's damage to the runs, the federal plan calls for a wide range of state, tribal and other restoration efforts away from the main rivers. But in a May 7 ruling, Redden found the government violated the law by relying on restoration actions that "are not reasonably certain to occur." Some programs lacked money or the legal authority to proceed, according to a state of Oregon brief cited in his opinion.
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