UPDATE – Court grants more time for Columbia biological opinion

A federal judge granted the Justice Department a 45-day extension to complete a final biological opinion on operating the Columbia River Basin hydropower system in ways that protect and recover threatened salmon stocks.

The new due date is May 5. The Justice Department filed its motion Jan. 22, asking U.S. District Judge James Redden to extend his March 18 deadline for NOAA Fisheries to complete the biological opinion for the Federal Columbia River Power System. (HNN 1/30/08) The government said it needed the additional time for NOAA Fisheries to consider and address comments received on the draft �biop.�

More than 1,000 pages of detailed comments were submitted by more than 47 entities, Bruce Suzumoto, assistant regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Hydropower Division, said in a declaration filed with the motion. Of those, 25 sets of comments addressing complex technical and legal issues were submitted by parties having a long-standing expertise with Columbia Basin fish and hydropower matters, he said. Additionally, individuals using form letters submitted more than 18,000 comments.

The draft biop, released Oct. 31, 2007, found the hydropower system could be operated to protect and recover threatened salmon stocks. NOAA Fisheries has said the biop — actually two opinions covering the Columbia Basin hydro system and upper Snake River irrigation projects — spells out an �aggressive and comprehensive� series of hydropower system improvements, hatchery reforms, and habitat enhancements.

The environmentalist dam removal lobby opposed the draft biop because, like four ill-fated biops before it, the opinion did not consider removing four Corps of Engineers dams on the Snake River totaling 3,033 MW.

Redden voided NOAA Fisheries’ previous biop, the 2004 opinion, ruling it was legally flawed because it found “no jeopardy” to salmon and steelhead listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Should the latest biop fail to win his approval, he has warned he has the option to order agency actions that might include dam removal.

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