Saving Salmon. A judge has ruled that feds must work with plaintiffs on new dam plan. (Photo courtesy of Bonneville Power Administration)

A judge has ordered the federal agencies involved with the massive 14-dam hydropower system on the Columbia and Snake rivers to rewrite the "biological opinion" controlling their operation–or risk a court takeover of those operations. He also held out an option of breaching the four Snake River dams if the agencies fail to cooperate on saving 13 endangered salmon species.

Required by the Endangered Species Act, a biological opinion (BiOp) describes wildlife status in an area affected by federal actions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers wrote the federal hydropower BiOp that said operational changes or significant dam modifications were not required to prevent salmon extinction in the Columbia River watershed.

EarthJustice, the plaintiff coalition, argues that the BiOp illegally shifted the baseline from restoration of historic runs to protection of existing numbers of fish, and allowed hatchery-bred fish to replace declining wild fish.

"The government’s inaction appears be a strategy intended to avoid making hard choices and offending those who favor the status quo," wrote Judge James Redden of the U.S. District Court in Portland in an Oct. 14 ruling. He cited interference from the White House and Congress in letting the agencies fulfill their obligations under the ESA and of not providing adequate funding to undertake the needed analysis.

He ordered the agencies to work openly with the plaintiff coalition of environmental, tribal and fishing groups to produce a new plan within a year. The judge also found the BiOp to be insufficiently "verifiable and quantifiable," with no

way to measure success, says Ed Mosey, spokesperson for the Bonneville Power Administration. BPA markets the power generated at the dams.

"The government has never been willing to define salmon recovery," says Amy Kouber, spokeswoman for the Seattle office of American Rivers, an EarthJustice member. "They just want to tweak operations a bit here and there."

Federal agencies had promised to spend $6 billion over the next 10 years on ecosystem-wide efforts to restore salmon habitats and to make physical modifications to the dams to prevent fish kills in turbines. This is being done outside of the BiOp process, says Mosey.

The federal agencies have 60 days to appeal, an option not yet ruled out.