updated 5/27/2005 1:19:14 PM ET 2005-05-27T17:19:14

A federal judge Thursday rejected the Bush administration’s $6 billion plan to improve the Columbia Basin hydroelectric dam system, saying it violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect salmon.

U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland ruled in favor of a challenge by environmentalists, Indian tribes and fishermen of a NOAA Fisheries opinion that the improvements would eliminate threats to salmon.

“It is apparent that the listed species are in serious decline and not evidencing signs of recovery,” the judge wrote.

The ruling sends NOAA Fisheries back to the drawing board to come up with a new plan for balancing the region’s power needs with those of the salmon.

The dams provide the Pacific Northwest with relatively inexpensive hydropower, but at the expense of salmon as they migrate. In years past, there have been calls for removal of some of the dams.

Salmon are often killed or injured as they pass through the dams while swimming out to sea and returning to spawn.

“The agencies have to go back and come up with an honest analysis of the trade-offs between keeping obsolete dams and restoring salmon and restoring communities in the Columbia Basin,” said Jan Hasselman, a lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

It is the second time in two years Redden has rejected a NOAA Fisheries proposal for balancing salmon and electricity needs.

Under the Endangered Species Act, NOAA Fisheries must decide whether the federally operated dams jeopardize the survival of 12 threatened and endangered runs of salmon, and if they do, propose ways to overcome the harm.

The review is known as a biological opinion.

NOAA Fisheries’ latest plan called for spending $6 million on improvements to dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. As part of that effort, the government has begun installing removable spillway weirs that NOAA Fisheries contends will increase survival of young fish by easing them over the dams while requiring less water to be spilled, rather than run through turbines.

However, a coalition of environmentalists, sports fishermen and American Indian tribes argued in federal court last month the latest plan fails to take responsibility for irreparable harm to the fish.

NOAA Fisheries spokesman Brian Gorman said the agency was still going over Thursday’s ruling, though he assumed it meant they would have to do the biological opinion over again. A hearing is scheduled June 10.

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