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NW Fishletter #260, April 16, 2009

[2] BiOp Judge Wants Breaching Language Added To Salmon Plan

All parties in the BiOp litigation huddled with federal District Court Judge James Redden April 2 after federal defendants requested a meeting to discuss concerns the judge raised at a March hearing on the latest salmon plan. At that time, Redden made it clear that he thought more estuary restoration was needed in the new plan.

The feds used the occasion, which was closed to the public, to announce that another $4.5 million in annual estuary actions will soon be added to the effort, part of a new agreement in the works with the state of Washington and action agencies that would boost spending for estuary projects to $100 million from $55 million over the 10-year life of the plan.

However, a source familiar with the meeting said Redden seemed mostly focused on the immediate survival of the listed stocks in the Snake River. He reportedly told the parties that he was worried that by 2017, "all the fish will be dead."

His remarks puzzled some onlookers, since Snake River spring chinook runs are poised for blockbuster returns over the next several years, and fall chinook have been returning at levels above interim recovery goals.

And why 2017? The judge didn't say, but that happens to be the date mentioned in the recent accords signed with lower Columbia tribes and BPA when the tribes could start advocating for removal of Snake River dams if the listed runs haven't started improving by a 2015 status review, and if the tribes' own analysis shows "contingent actions are needed."

The year 2017 is also about the time a 1999 extinction analysis funded by conservation group Trout Unlimited estimated that the Snake spring chinook stocks would be functionally extinct. That report, called 'The Doomsday Clock,' was updated in 2001. It was harshly criticized by regional scientists, who said the analysis had cherry-picked the time frame to reach its conclusion (see next story).

However, the judge wants NOAA Fisheries to add language to the BiOp that would provide a breaching "off-ramp" in case the Snake runs collapse. That could take some fancy legal footwork, since the feds had recently announced they were not going to reopen the 2008 BiOp for consultation.

Before that, they had told the judge the breaching option was not included in their salmon plan because it was an action "not reasonably certain to occur," noting that the judge had previously ruled the plan could only include actions that were likely to occur.

Federal defendants and plaintiffs later said they would respond to the judge's other questions within the next three weeks.

Meanwhile, environmental groups have pulled out the stops to get breaching in the public consciousness. American Rivers pegged the lower Snake River as the third most endangered river in America, and an April 11 editorial in the New York Times called for the Obama administration to consider breaching the lower Snake dams.

But a new poll conducted by Northwest RiverPartners found that two-thirds of Northwest voters opposed dam breaching. -B. R.

The following links were mentioned in this story:

Northwest RiverPartners Media Release

NY Times April 11 editorial

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