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Originally published Friday, May 28, 2010 at 2:57 PM

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Crafting the operating manual for the Columbia River system

Federal District Judge James Redden is getting an updated operating plan for the Columbia River hydro system. He will decide if it is a technical fix he sought, or whether it provides him with reassurances about backup plans for changing river and fish conditions.

YEARS of battling about how best to manage the Columbia River hydroelectric system without doing greater harm to endangered salmon and steelhead is coming to another decision point.

Attempts to craft a workable plan for a spectrum of needs and uses — power, irrigation, flood control, navigation and recreation — have exhausted Cabinet secretaries and frustrated environmentalists.

The Obama administration seeks approval for a massaged Bush administration plan, and it faces a tough arbiter, federal District Judge James Redden.

The controlling document, a biological opinion, lays out how the river will be operated for up to 10 years. Redden sought inclusion of an adaptive management-implementation plan to supplement the underlying document.

Did the judge ask for a technical fix to satisfy federal administrative procedures, so an inventory of scientific data was all that was needed to bulk up the submission, or did he want more?

Fish folks challenging the hydro folks argue the judge was looking for reassurance the final document fully addressed the risk to salmon and steelhead the length of the river, for stocks that must navigate the entire system, as well as endangered species in more accessible tributaries.

Skeptics challenging the adequacy of the latest submission include the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society.

A February critique found volumes of assembled data with little detail how it might be applied or how significant declines might be addressed.

The document in play is a template for river operations. It is hard to imagine the judge was only looking for archival tidiness, as a opposed to a credible action plan grounded in the best science.

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