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Salmon's future at heart of federal dam war

Judge orders spill, irking government

LITTLE GOOSE DAM, Wash. -- Behold the slab of concrete called Little Goose, ground zero in the salmon wars that are escalating across the Pacific Northwest.

Little Goose has turbines for power, locks for river transport, and a Rube Goldberg device for distilling young salmon out of the river, sorting them by size, and hosing them into trucks and barges for passage downriver.

This hulking gizmo has become part of the ''environmental baseline" here on the Snake River. At least that is how the Bush administration characterizes Little Goose and 13 other federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers.

This characterization, though, has stuck in the craw of a federal judge. In his courtroom in Portland, Ore., US District Judge James Redden described the administration's 2004 biological opinion -- it says dams are an ineluctable part of the river's environmental baseline -- as a document written ''more in cynicism than in sincerity."

The sincerity of the administration's policy is also being questioned by some scientists who work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, according to a survey of agency employees released recently by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. It found that about two-thirds of those surveyed did not believe that the agency, which is responsible for protecting endangered fish and their habitat, was effectively doing its job. More than half of respondents said they knew of cases in which ''commercial interests" or senior administration officials have ''inappropriately" influenced agency decisions.

Results of the survey, which went to 460 science professionals and had a response rate of 27 percent, are similar to those of a survey early this year of scientists at the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The chief science adviser at NOAA Fisheries, Steven Murawski, challenged the latest survey, saying it obtained responses from only 6 percent of more than 2,000 agency scientists. He said it is poor science because it was not sent to ''the overwhelming number of our science professionals."

In Portland, Redden has tossed out as ''legally flawed" the administration's 2004 biological opinion for the Columbia and Snake rivers. He declared that it ''ignored the reality of past, present, and future effects" of dams on 12 species of endangered fish. Before the dams were built, these rivers were conduits for the world's premier salmon run.

''As currently operated, I find that the dams strongly contribute to the endangerment of the listed species, and irreparable injury will result if changes are not made," Redden wrote.

To that end, he supported a request from the National Wildlife Federation and other salmon advocates, ordering that water be spilled over Little Goose Dam and other dams in the lower Snake. The spill started June 20. Spilling water over dams keeps migrating juvenile fish in the river, while keeping them out of turbines that often kill them. When less water goes through its turbines, though, Little Goose produces less electricity. Through the end of August, this dam will spill water that would be worth $267,288 a day if it had been fed into turbines to generate electricity, said Carl Knaak, operations manager at the dam.

The total tab for the spill ordered by Redden will come to about $67 million, according to the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells power from federal dams in the Northwest and adamantly opposes the spill. For the average electricity customer whose utility buys all its power from BPA, the cost will be relatively low. It will require an increase of about 1.2 percent in the monthly bill, about 87 cents, said Ed Sheets, a private consultant with expertise in the Northwest hydro system.

The spill, and Redden's language in tossing out the government's approach to running the river, appears to have angered the Bush administration. The Justice Department tried and failed to persuade the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco to issue an emergency motion to stop the spill. Last month, that court also ruled against the administration on another salmon dispute, upholding a Seattle federal court decision that found that the Environmental Protection Agency violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect salmon from harmful pesticides.

In the spill dispute, the Ninth Circuit has ordered an expedited hearing on the government's appeal to the Redden ruling.

The Justice Department argues in its appeal that keeping endangered salmon in the dammed-up river rather than barging or trucking them around federal dams is ''judicial experimentation."

''A federal judge just isn't in a position to step in and decide how to operate the system," said Fred Disheroon, special litigation counsel for the Justice Department on the salmon issue. ''The judge is ordering something that is untested and in our view, puts the fish at greater risk."

If the government does not win its appeal, Disheroon said, it might invoke a rarely used provision of the Endangered Species Act that would convene a Cabinet-level committee informally called the ''God Squad." After a lengthy public process, the committee could decide that economic concerns justify the extinction of endangered fish.

Given the judge's decision, Disheroon said, ''it may not be possible to come up with a way to avoid jeopardy for these fish."

Lawyers for the environmental groups that sued the government argue that it is absurd for the Bush administration to argue that keeping salmon in the river is an untested and risky plan.

''The science is clear. If we want to bring the salmon back, we have to be willing to make the hydrosystem work more like a natural river," said Todd True, a staff attorney for Earthjustice. ''The Bonneville Power Administration thinks it owns the river, and they don't want to give it up, not one drop."

Behind the legal arguments that are swirling around the river system this summer lie two long-held and diametrically opposed views about what should happen to Little Goose and three other dams in the lower Snake River.

Environmental groups, some state fish agencies, and many salmon biologists argue that removing the dams is the only possible way to prevent wholesale extinction of Snake River salmon. It is an argument that dates back six decades, well before Little Goose and its sister dams were built in the 1960s and '70s.

At the top of the Bush administration, the signal is clear: President Bush has himself come to the lower Snake and pledged that dams such as Little Goose will never be removed.

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