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Judge issues salmon plan deadline

Brad Cain Associated Press

PORTLAND – Warning that threatened and endangered salmon are running out of time, a federal judge Friday gave federal agencies one year to come up with a new plan for protecting them from being killed by federal hydroelectric dams in the Columbia Basin.

U.S. District Judge James Redden cut in half the time sought by NOAA Fisheries, the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to revise a plan, known as a biological opinion, that the judge had ruled in violation of the Endangered Species Act last May.

He added that he will be keeping close watch over the process, and if he sees substantial progress, could grant a little more time.

“We’re running out of time,” the judge said from the bench.

“This time we’re going to do it.”

The latest biological opinion will be the fifth since the federal government took over efforts to save dwindling runs of Columbia Basin salmon from extinction.

The fish have suffered from the combined effects of dams, overfishing, logging, grazing, water withdrawals for irrigation and urban development.

Redden went along with the one-year timetable requested by lawyers representing environmentalists, Indian tribes and fishermen.

“We think that the salmon and the people who depend on them in this region have waited too long for a plan that complies with the law,” said Todd True, an attorney for Earthjustice representing some of the plaintiffs.

“If the federal agencies want more than a year, they’re going to need to show some real leadership. That’s what people in this region deserve.”

Plaintiffs had challenged the Bush administration’s $6 billion plan that depended heavily on installing huge fish slides on dams to keep juveniles migrating to the ocean out of turbines and ease them over spillways, both of which can be fatal.

Redden rejected the underlying principle of the NOAA plan – that the dams are part of the ecosystem. Accepting that assumption would make the government responsible only for the small percentage of mortality to salmon from changes in dam operations, not for the greater damages from the dams themselves.

NOAA spokesman Brian Gorman said they had produced the last biological opinion in a little more than a year, adding that it was too early to say what it might look like. The government has not decided whether to appeal Redden’s ruling.

The new plan is likely to consider spilling more water over dams and increasing river flows to help juvenile salmon migrate to the ocean.

Last summer, Redden granted a motion from plaintiffs that directed more spill over five dams – Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams on the Snake River in southeastern Washington, and McNary Dam on the Columbia River straddling Oregon and Washington.

While each dam only kills a small percentage of fish, more than half of the spring-summer chinook run from the Snake River end up being killed as they maneuver through all the dams’ hydroelectric turbines.

A preliminary study by the Fish Passage Center has indicated that during the time extra water was being spilled, a higher percentage of juvenile fish survived the migration through the dams.

The Bonneville Power Administration has estimated the extra spill would cause an increase of 4 percent to 5 percent in the wholesale electricity rate of about $32 per megawatt, because less water would be turning turbines.

That would typically amount to an increase of about 2 percent in the rates paid by residential customers.

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