SEATTLE — For years, the federal government has struggled to find a way to operate the massive hydropower system on the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest and still recover the endangered salmon that all too frequently are slaughtered at the massive dams as they make their way up and down the river.
One option for saving the fish has never really been on the table: breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River that stand between the salmon and millions of acres of pristine habitat in central Idaho and northeastern Oregon.
President George W. Bush made it clear that would never happen on his watch. The dams, after all, are generating enough electricity to power Seattle, and provide Lewiston, Idaho, with a port for barging valuable cargoes of grain 140 miles down the river.
But it's a new watch. And a federal judge in Oregon has signaled that breaching the Snake River dams needs to be considered, at least as a contingency plan, if other options for bringing back salmon fail to do the job.
In a letter to parties in the long-running litigation, U.S. District Judge James A. Redden made it clear that he was ready to find substantial shortcomings in the biological opinion for salmon recovery laid out by the Bush administration last year.
"Federal defendants have spent the better part of the last decade treading water and avoiding their obligations under the Endangered Species Act," the judge wrote. "Only recently have they begun to commit the kind of financial and political capital necessary to save these threatened and endangered species, some of which are on the brink of extinction. We simply cannot afford to waste another decade."
The government needs to develop a contingency plan to study "specific, alternative hydro actions, such as flow augmentation and/or reservoir drawdowns," the Portland-based judge wrote, "as well as what it will take to breach the lower Snake River dams if all other measures fail."
Reading between the lines, it looks like yet another federal salmon recovery plan is on its way to getting tossed out by the courts -- by a judge who's ready to look at the most serious of options, dam breaching, if it comes to that.
"This is a significant development in the case, because it indicates to the new administration that they have a significant problem to solve in order to come up with a plan that will protect these species and all the people that depend on them," said Todd True, attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice.
"We believe that a serious look at the science and the options we have for bringing the fish back will lead to the conclusion that removing dams on the lower Snake River is a critical step that we should stop dancing around and start dealing with."
Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, said the agency could not comment on the judge's letter before reviewing it. But he said government scientists believe they can bring salmon populations back without breaching the dams.
"I don't think anyone argues that conditions in there for fish would be improved if there were no dams," he said, "but what we have argued in this biological opinion is that we can get to where we need to go without breaching the dams, given the fact that breaching the dams would be enormously disruptive politically and socially and economically."
The Justice Department this month requested a delay of up to two months in the court case to "more fully understand all aspects" of the plan. Redden said his letter was intended as a guide to what issues he thinks need looking at.
Government scientists "improperly rely on speculative, uncertain and unidentified tributary and estuary habitat improvement actions to find that threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead are, in fact, trending toward recovery," he said.
"All of us know that aggressive action is necessary to save this vital resource," the judge said, "and now is the time to make that happen."
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