A federal judge in Oregon ruled Tuesday the Obama administration’s attempt to make federal hydroelectric dams in the Northwest safer for protected salmon once again violates the Endangered Species Act.
In a sternly worded ruling, U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland 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.
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.
A spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, which wrote the biological opinion, did not immediately return telephone calls for comment.
Since the 1990s, 14 different species of salmon and steelhead from the Columbia Basin have been protected as threatened or endangered.
Earthjustice attorney Todd True, who represented the conservation and fishing groups that challenged 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 jeopardize the survival of threatened and endangered species. Otherwise, it must come up with steps to reduce the harm, known as reasonable and prudent alternatives.
Redden wrote that the alternatives proposed by the government, primarily involving improving habitat in rivers, lacked scientific and financial backing. The judge found that lack of credibility made the overall plan arbitrary and capricious.
Redden kept control of dam operations, and made permanent his earlier orders to increase the amount of water spilled over dams to help young salmon migrating to the ocean in the spring and summer, rather than going through turbines.
The judge had particularly harsh words for the Bush administration, which abandoned a 2000 biological opinion that recognized the possibility dams might have to be breached to bring back salmon.
“As the parties are well aware, the resulting BiOp was a cynical and transparent attempt to avoid responsibility for the decline of listed Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead,” Redden wrote. “NOAA Fisheries wasted several precious years interpreting and reinterpreting the ESA’s regulations.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., condemned the ruling, saying only Congress has authority to remove dams, and added that such action would harm the region’s economy.