Monday, January 30th, 2023
Monday, January 30th, 2023

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Federal judge faults plan in northwest salmon dispute

Portland, Ore. (AP) — The federal agency in charge of saving
salmon in the Columbia River Basin from extinction should have a
plan in place to remove dams on the lower Snake River if necessary,
a federal judge said Friday.

U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden, who heard arguments
in a longrunning dispute over how to balance energy and utility
needs in the Columbia Basin with salmon and steelhead, said he has
not eliminated the possibility that the hyrdroelectric dams could
come down to ensure restoration and survival of imperiled salmon
and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.

“I don’t know that breaching of the dams is the solution,” he
said. “I hope it’s never done, but that’s the last fallback.”

Former President George Bush had vowed the dams would stay.
President Barack Obama has yet to weigh in.

Environmentalists have argued that salmon populations cannot
recover without removing some dams, especially the migration
bottleneck to Idaho created by four dams on the lower Snake
River.

Redden told NOAA Fisheries Service that their plan for balancing
endangered salmon runs against electricity production on 14 federal
Columbia Basin hydroelectric dams still needs work, particularly in
the area of habitat improvement.

Federal agencies have acknowledged that the dams themselves
threaten the survival of fish, but relied on extensive habitat
restoration, modifications to dams spillways, and changes in salmon
hatchery operations without major changes to the amount of water
going through turbines.

At the start of the daylong hearing, the federal government
agreed to let more water pass through Columbia and Snake River dams
to help young salmon migrate to the ocean.

Colby Howell, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney, said the
move was a compromise because the spilled water doesn’t go through
turbines to generate power and adds millions of dollars to
Bonneville Power Administration costs.

Conservationists, meanwhile, have maintained more spills remain
the biggest factor in greater numbers in recent salmon returns.

Federal officials submitted a 10-year plan in May after others
were rejected by Redden. They said the plan would help fish passing
through the dams survive. Environmentalists sued, saying the plan
did too little to restore salmon populations.

“It seems to ensure extinction,” said Howard Funke, a lawyer for
the Spokane Indian Tribe, one of two tribes in the region to side
with the environmentalists.

But federal officials defended the new plan, saying it will help
the survival of fish.

They also noted the new plan has been backed by Idaho,
Washington and Montana and by most Columbia River tribes – a new
development in the long running argument.

Four Northwest Indian tribal governments – Yakama, Warm Springs,
Umatilla and Colville – agreed to the plan, which committed the
federal agencies to giving the tribes $900 million to spend toward
salmon.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana and the
Kootenai Tribe of Idaho also sided with the federal agencies. But
like the Spokane, the Nez Perce Tribe would not back the federal
plan.

Despite his comments on the biological opinion, Redden on Friday
praised the federal and state officials’ and tribal leaders’
collaboration.

“We’ve worked incredibly hard on this,” Howell told Redden. “We
deserve a chance.”

Todd True, attorney for the legal group Earthjustice, however,
said it would do little to improve conditions for salmon.

“Salmon don’t swim in collaboration,” Todd True said. “They
won’t return in greater numbers because of a new collaboration – no
matter how sincere.”

Columbia Basin salmon returns once numbered an estimated 10
million to 30 million, but overfishing, habitat loss, pollution and
dam construction over the past century have caused their numbers to
plunge.

Dozens of populations are extinct, and 13 are listed as
threatened or endangered, making it necessary for federal projects
such as the hydroelectric system to show they can be operated
without harming them.

The last three plans for balancing salmon and dams failed to
pass legal muster.

Each of the dams kills only a small percentage of the millions
of young salmon headed to the ocean, but that adds up to a major
death toll.

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