MONDAY, AUG. 10, 2009, 6 P.M.

NOAA granted another month for salmon plan

PORTLAND — A federal judge Monday gave the Obama administration another month before saying where it stands on the Bush administration’s strategy for balancing endangered salmon against federal hydroelectric power production in the Columbia Basin.

Acting on a request by an attorney for NOAA Fisheries Service, U.S. District Judge James Redden set a new deadline of Sept. 15. The agency must tell Redden by then of its position on the current plan for restoring 13 threatened and endangered salmon runs that have to swim over 14 federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. The old deadline was Friday.

In a letter to the judge, government attorney Coby Howell wrote that the administration would like to explain its position, and how it came to it, to the various parties involved in the longstanding litigation challenging the plan known as a biological opinion.

“In these discussions with the other parties we will be seeking to determine if there is common ground that can be achieved based on our review,” Howell wrote.

Last May, two top members of President Obama’s environmental team — NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco and White House Council on Environmental Quality chairwoman Nancy Sutley — held a series of closed-door meetings with scientists, government officials and Indian tribes on the issue.

They also toured one of the lower Snake River dams that salmon advocates want breached to help struggling Idaho runs.

Environmentalists challenging the latest biological opinion 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 in Washington state.

Redden told the NOAA Fisheries Service last March that their plan still needs work, particularly in the area of habitat improvement.

Federal agencies have acknowledged that the dams threaten the survival of fish, but said that extensive habitat restoration, changes in salmon hatchery operations and plans to let more water pass through Columbia and Snake River dams should mitigate the problem.

Three former Northwest governors — John Kitzhaber of Oregon, Cecil Andrus of Idaho and Mike Lowry of Washington — have urged the Obama administration to reject the Bush administration plan.

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