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NOAA Fisheries files new Columbia Basin salmon plan with court

JEFF BARNARD, Associated Press Writer

By spending $6 billion on improvements over the next 10 years, the Columbia Basin's federal hydroelectric dams can be operated without jeopardizing the survival of threatened and endangered salmon, the government said in a report.

NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for restoring dwindling salmon runs in the Northwest, filed a biological opinion Thursday with the U.S. District Court in Portland. A judge had found a 2000 opinion inadequate because there was no assurance that mandated measures to protect salmon would actually be carried out by federal agencies.

Thursday's opinion sets a new course for salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin by jettisoning a movement toward restoring the Columbia and Snake rivers to a more natural condition, and acknowledging the dams as part of the landscape that cannot be removed.

The plan drew sharp criticism from environmentalists and American Indian tribes, who continue to believe removing four dams on the lower Snake River is the best course to salmon recovery, but got support from utilities, irrigators, grain shippers and others who depend on the dams for power, navigation and water.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the operation of the dozens of federal hydroelectric dams, reservoirs and powerhouses on the Columbia and Snake rivers and their tributaries cannot jeopardize the survival of protected salmon. NOAA Fisheries has the responsibility to review the proposal for operating the dams and issue what is called a biological opinion.

In May 2003, U.S. District Judge James Redden ruled that the biological opinion issued in 2000 was illegal because the federal government could not guarantee habitat enhancements and upgrades to hatchery and dam operations to prevent jeopardizing salmon survival.

The new analysis takes a different approach, considering the harm dam operations cause to salmon, but not the harm caused by the dams simply being there, said Bob Lohn, Northwest regional director of NOAA Fisheries.

Lohn said President Bush's promise not to remove the Snake River dams did not shape the biological opinion, because NOAA Fisheries had already advised the White House that salmon could be restored without removing the dams.

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