Agencies plan to protect endangered salmon

April 13, 2007 12:00 am

By Jeff Barnard

The Associated Press

GRANTS PASS, Ore. – Federal agencies say they remain committed to producing a good plan for helping threatened and endangered

survive their migrations over Columbia Basin hydroelectric dams after an appeals court strongly rejected the latest effort as "sleight of hand."

A statement from four agencies said Tuesday they hoped collaboration would produce a plan that will protect the fish and "have broad regional support as well."

"Meanwhile, our investments and actions for salmon are producing tangible results," the agencies said. "We can report strong survival again in 2006 for juvenile spring chinook as they migrate through reservoirs and past dams."

The statement was signed by regional directors of NOAA Fisheries, which is in charge of restoring dwindling salmon populations; the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the power produced by the dams; the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operate the dams; and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Under federal court order, the agencies are due to offer a new strategy late next month.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Monday upheld orders by U.S. District Judge James Redden requiring the dams to sacrifice power production to help juvenile salmon migrating to the ocean.

It also kept open the possibility that Redden could order four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington breached to restore salmon – a step he has said he would be willing to take if needed.

Each federal effort to balance endangered salmon against production from the Columbia Basin dams, known as a biological opinion, has been struck down since 1993.

After President Bush pledged that four dams on the lower Snake River would not be breached to restore salmon, NOAA Fisheries came up with a novel approach in 2004.

It argued that because the dams were built before the Endangered Species Act became law, their existence was part of the environmental baseline, and not subject to removal to help salmon. The same went for basic operations, such as irrigation, flood control and power generation.

The appeals court called that "little more than an analytical sleight of hand, manipulating the variables to achieve a ‘no jeopardy' finding.

Statistically speaking, using the 2004 BiOp's analytical framework, the dead fish were really alive. The ESA requires a more realistic, common sense examination."

A total of 13 species of salmon and steelhead that pass over the dams are listed as threatened or endangered. Juveniles swimming downstream to the ocean are hit the hardest. Each dam kills a percentage of each overall run as tiny fish go through turbines, become disoriented plunging over spillways, and are eaten by predators in slow water, adding up to a major impact.

Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, said NOAA Fisheries has "hidden behind" minor increases in chinook returns, and must commit to a real collaboration with states and tribes to restore salmon.

Climate changes driven by global warming will only make restoration harder, Hudson added.