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PORTLAND, Ore. - To avoid more legal battles until a May 5 deadline for a new salmon recovery plan for the Northwest, a federal judge has ordered that Columbia River dams be operated under last year's guidelines.
U.S. District Judge James Redden rolled over the 2007 operating plan for hydroelectric dams into 2008 after settling a minor technical issue.
In a letter last Friday to the lawyers involved in the case, Redden said the purpose of the "rollover agreement was to avoid time-consuming" legal motions while the government completes a third biological opinion on the effects of dam operations on threatened and endangered salmon runs.
The judge threw out the previous two opinions for failure to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act to protect and restore salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
Redden has threatened to take over the effort to balance salmon conservation with dam operations if the government fails to meet his standards with the latest biological opinion, warning the consequences "could be harsh."
Environmental groups welcomed the extension, reached after talks with representatives of federal and state agencies and fishing and conservation groups.
"What the judge said is, 'Let's get this biological opinion out the door and solve this issue once and for all,"' said Nicole Cordan, policy and legal director for Save Our Wild Salmon.
NOAA Fisheries is the federal agency charged with writing the biological opinion with advice from the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal power marketing agency which sells energy from the dams, the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates them, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Under the extension, the corps and the BPA will adjust the dam spill and river flow levels to the levels the judge ordered in 2005 for the 2006 salmon migration season. The same operating plan was used by agreement and court order last year.
Conservation groups said the order calls for increased spill over federal dams during the crucial spring and salmon downstream migration periods.
"The court's order is good news for fish and fishing communities in the Columbia River basin, but we are still a long way from solving this problem," said Todd True of Earthjustice, lead attorney for fishing and conservation groups.
True said the federal agencies still must make major changes in dam operations when they submit their biological opinion, which will guide salmon recovery efforts in the Columbia and Snake river basins for the next decade.