U.S. wants more time to finish Columbia biological opinion

The Department of Justice has filed a motion seeking 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 department filed a motion Jan. 22, asking U.S. District Judge James Redden to extend his March 18 deadline for NOAA Fisheries to complete a biological opinion for the Federal Columbia River Power System. The government said it needs the additional time for NOAA Fisheries to consider and address comments received on the draft �biop.� (HNN 12/13/07)

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.

At a court status conference in December 2007, the judge indicated the number and substance of public comments on the draft biop might dictate more time is needed to complete the final opinion. If Redden agrees to the extension, the final biop would be due May 2.

The draft biop for the Federal Columbia River Power System, 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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