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Originally published September 21, 2009 at 4:36 PM | Page modified September 21, 2009 at 6:46 PM

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A plan for Columbia River salmon recovery to please a critic

The federal district judge who has twice rejected plans for salmon and steelhead recovery in the Columbia River Basin might find revisions by the Obama administration to his liking. No predicting his reaction, but it is time to put an improved plan to work.

THE Obama administration's revised, broadly circulated plans for protecting Northwest salmon runs and managing the Columbia River hydroelectric system truly have an audience of one, a skeptical federal judge.

After two false starts, he may well like what he sees.

This time U.S. District Judge James Redden will read enough active verbs, contingency plans and flow charts to convince him that tangible efforts to protect endangered salmon and steelhead are under way or close at hand.

Reworking the Columbia River biological opinion, the federal blueprint for salmon recovery, is turning into a growth industry. Pursuit of the perfect plan consumes time and energy better invested in putting a good plan into effect, watching it work and adapting it under way.

Redden, who has twice rejected a Bush administration version, gave Obama's team extra time last spring to put its mark on the biological opinion, which they resubmitted last week.

After endorsing the underlying science, the new administration pledged to accelerate a variety of actions and enhance others. Contingency plans, rapid-response programs and emergency triggers presume to spur more action.

Now it falls to Redden to measure sincerity and capacity behind the promise.

Regional ratepayers already support annual salmon budgets of $100 million, and another $6 million is pledged for habitat and estuary improvements.

Sound science bumps into incomplete science and science in progress, as with hatcheries. Do they complicate restoration of wild salmon and steelhead runs? The question smacks into the popularity of hatcheries for salmon production and sustained harvests.

Likewise, spring and summer spills at the dams to move fish through the system create a tension with hydropower production. The Bonneville Power Administration had best be able to articulate a compromise that satisfies the judge.

The biological opinion puts removal of four Lower Snake River back on the table after the previous administration took away the option. They are back as a long-term contingency plan, but without sufficient science to justify moving ahead now, in the view of the administration.

Time to move ahead with constructive, long-term action, and a vigilant judge to keep the government honest.

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