The Obama administration says it will be more aggressive in protecting declining Pacific Northwest salmon runs and will study breaching some dams as a last resort in a long-awaited management plan.
The administration submitted the plan to a federal judge Tuesday in Portland, immediately drawing anger from both sides of the debate: activists called it too weak, while a key House Republican predicted it would economically cripple the Northwest.
Called a "biological opinion," the plan is intended to guide hydroelectric dam operations and fish conservation programs in the Columbia Basin for the next decade.
U.S. District Judge James Redden rejected two earlier plans in 2003 and 2005, threatening at one point to take control of salmon recovery efforts.
The new plan would immediately boost mitigation programs to help salmon survival, expand research and monitoring, and set specific biological "triggers" for even stronger measures, if numbers of threatened fish fail to reach certain benchmarks.
But the Obama administration plan largely supports an earlier version offered by the Bush administration, even though Redden found portions of that plan inadequate.
Zeke Grader, head of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said the plan would "leave salmon in the perilous decline they have been in for years."
The Sierra Club urged Redden to "bury this plan for good."
The Obama administration said it will speed up things such as habitat improvement projects because of concerns about uncertainties such as the effect of climate change.
The revised plan also directs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin studying removal of the Snake River dams in Washington state, but warned it was "viewed as an action of last resort." No action would be taken before 2013 at the earliest.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said the Obama administration had unwisely put dam removal "back on the table" among options in the decades-long dispute over how to balance the needs of salmon and people.
"No one should be fooled by talk of dam removal as a last resort when the Obama Administration is immediately launching studies and plans for such action," said Hastings, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee. Hastings represents a central Washington district that includes one of the four dams that could be breached.
Hastings said he was disappointed that the Obama administration apparently did not recognize the "terrible" economic toll that dam removal would have on the Northwest in the form of higher energy prices and thousands of lost jobs — "and all for an extreme action that science hasn't shown would lead to fish recovery."
The new biological opinion was praised by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state.
In a written statement, she said she is confident the Obama administration plan "meets scientific and legal requirements. This comprehensive salmon plan builds on many years of successful, ground-up collaborative efforts."
The biological opinion is required by the federal Endangered Species Act to protect salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.
It was prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the three federal agencies involved in operating dams, the Army Corps, the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.