U.S. Judge Rejects Latest Salmon Recovery Plan

For the third time in a decade, a federal judge in Portland, Oregon, has rejected as inadequate the U.S. government's plan for making hydroelectric dams safer for endangered salmon and steelhead in the Pacific northwest. The plan, known as a biological opinion, was put forth by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service, and is an attempt to rebuild seven populations of salmon and steelhead considered on the brink of extinction.

In his latest ruling yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden concluded that the current biological opinion fails to identify specific habitat improvements after 2013 needed to ensure continued recovery of the fish runs. "Here, NOAA Fisheries improperly relies on habitat mitigation measures that are neither reasonably specific nor reasonably certain to occur, and in some cases not even identified," Redden wrote in his ruling. As part of his decision, Redden required dam operators to continue the practice of spilling water through the dams, though not through the power-generating turbines, to help juvenile salmon upriver bypass the dams and make it out to sea. Redden also ordered NOAA fisheries to consider whether "more aggressive action" is necessary, including removing dams, drawing down reservoirs, and maintaining higher water levels in streams. NOAA Fisheries has until 1 January 2014 to submit its revised biological opinion.

The case has long been considered a high-stakes test of how far the federal Endangered Species Act can require changes to modern society aimed at ensuring the continued viability of species considered iconic. Ultimately, the judge's rulings could have a profound affect on the Northwest region by altering the way it manages hydropower, which provides cheap electricity to millions of residents and businesses and a river transportation system for farmers to ship their goods to international markets.

"We think it is a very significant ruling and a very important victory for wildlife," says John Kostyack, a vice president for wildlife conservation with the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C. The judge has made it clear that "half-measures" aren't sufficient, says Kostyack. "We need a solution on scale with the problem," he says.

That's a large scale indeed. There are 14 dams on the main stem of the Columbia River, four more on the lower reach of the Snake River, and dozens on tributaries throughout the region. Prior to European settlement, as many as 30 million salmon annually made their way from the Pacific Ocean upriver, some as far as 1450 kilometers to tributaries of the Snake. Though numbers vary, Columbia River salmon migrations today are roughly 1% of their historic levels, according to Nicole Cordan, policy and legal director with Save Our Wild Salmon in Portland.

Cordan says that the Obama Administration has been reluctant to change how NOAA Fisheries officials made the agency's case to the courts since taking office in 2009. "Now is an opportunity for this Administration to put their mark on this," Cordan says.