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Editorial: Final court for fish

Judges ordering rewrite of water plans


Published 2:15 am PDT Thursday, October 27, 2005
Story appeared in Editorials section, Page B8

There is a worrisome trend about water and the West that may soon hit close to home: Judges are throwing out Bush administration plans to "restore" endangered fish populations because the plans flunk the test of sound, defensible science.

One case involves the Columbia and Snake rivers, which once had the largest salmon runs of any Pacific streams. A federal judge has tossed out the administration's recovery plan for the salmon. 

Another concerns the Klamath River of Oregon and California. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered the administration to provide additional flows for fish above and beyond its recovery plan.

Meanwhile, in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a judge has yet to rule on a challenge to a new federal water operations plan. Don't be shocked if its science (it underwent a rather infamous rewriting) fails to pass muster as well.

Regardless of your favorite river constituent - whether it is the farmer who depends on a pump or a steelhead that depends on a cold, reliable flow - it is never good news when the courts are rejecting management plans. It is a sign that something unsustainable is happening, and that government has yet to confront some extremely tough choices.

In the case of the Columbia and Snake rivers, the judge is casting considerable doubt on the notion that it is feasible to prevent the extinction of salmon and steelhead species without a dramatic change to four dams, either by breaching them or curtailing hydropower production.

On the Klamath, the judicial skepticism has to do with some fuzzy commitments to provide adequate flows for fish.

In the Delta, the unanswered question is whether it is justifiable to pump more freshwater from the estuary at a time when key species (smelt and shad) are crashing to record low populations.

There is a temptation for any administration to defer to the next president some tough water decisions. That is what President Clinton did on the Columbia and Snake rivers. And while the environmental groups that are challenging the Bush administration are undoubtedly happy with the court decisions, these groups need to reach out to their adversaries (namely agriculture and this administration) to find workable long-term solutions. Fights and court battles are signs that all interests are losing.

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