A federal judge in Oregon ruled Tuesday the Obama administration’s attempt to make federal hydroelectric dams in the Northwest safer for protected salmon violates the Endangered Species Act.
In a sternly worded ruling, U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland, Ore., wrote that the plan, known as a biological opinion, is too vague and uncertain on specific steps that will be taken in future years to improve salmon habitat.
Redden added that he doesn’t think the government can meet the standards of the Endangered Species Act by habitat improvements alone, and it is time to consider new options, including removing some of the dams.
The judge left the plan in place through 2013, when federal agencies must come up with more specific projects to help salmon through 2018.
Earthjustice attorney Todd True, who represented the salmon advocacy groups that challenge the biological opinion, noted this is the third straight time Redden has rejected the government’s attempt to say that the harm caused by the dams can be mitigated by improvements to habitat.
The judge is saying, “It is time to go in a new direction,” True said. “We have been saying that for years. Hopefully the government will get the message now.”
The 2010 biological opinion covers 14 federally owned and operated hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers in Oregon, Washington and Montana. Under the Endangered Species Act, A government project like these dams cannot harm threatened and endangered species. Otherwise, it must come up with steps to reduce the harm, known as reasonable and prudent alternatives.
While the dams have provided the West with cheap hydroelectric power for decades, they are also a leading factor in the steady decline in populations of wild salmon, which only account for a small fraction of annual returns anymore. The bulk of the fish returning each year to spawn come from hatcheries.
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