Latest federal plan for Columbia salmon challenged

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Conservation groups and salmon advocates have challenged the Obama administration’s latest plan for making Columbia Basin dams safe for salmon.

The challenge was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Portland against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, which oversees salmon protection, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operate the dams. It was the seventh challenge since the lawsuit was originally filed in 2001.

Joseph Bogaard of Save Our Wild Salmon said the plan is “virtually indistinguishable” from the one overturned by a federal court three years ago.

A federal judge rejected that plan because it relied too heavily on habitat-restoration plans that were not specific.

Bogaard said efforts to develop a better plan through collaboration, rather than litigation, were rebuffed.

NOAA Fisheries said in a statement that the agency has made “clear and demonstrable progress in rebuilding salmon and steelhead runs throughout the Columbia Basin,” and it expects progress to continue.

“We are not surprised, but we are disappointed at the prospect of yet another cycle of litigation, which only distracts from implementing projects on the ground,” spokeswoman Connie Barkley said in an email. “We will continue to work collaboratively with our many regional partners to ensure the protection and restoration of these important fish and their habitats now and well into the future, and we encourage all to join in that effort.”

The Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation had no immediate comment about the new legal challenge.

The plan, required by the U.S. Endangered Species Act and known as a biological opinion, is the fifth filed by the government since Columbia Basin salmon went on the endangered species list in the 1990s. It balances the protection of endangered salmon against the operation of the hydroelectric dams, which provide much of the power used in the Northwest. It acknowledges that the dams imperil endangered salmon, but it offers actions to make up for the losses. Four previous plans have all been rejected by a federal judge.

While the return of adult salmon to the Columbia has surged in recent years, the great majority were bred in hatcheries, and thus are not covered by the Endangered Species Act. Some runs of wild fish have continued to struggle.

A decade ago, a federal judge ordered the government to increase the amount of water spilled over the dams, which increases the numbers of young fish that survive their migration to the ocean but reduces the amount of hydroelectric power the dams produce. The government has since resisted pressure from salmon advocates to increase spill even more, saying it wasn’t needed.

“A 17-year scientific study demonstrates that spill is our most effective immediate measure to increase salmon survival across their life cycle,” Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, said in a statement. “The salmon are talking, and it’s hard to fathom why (NOAA Fisheries), the science agency charged with restoring them, isn’t listening.”

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