Judge pulls the plug on Bush and helps threatened salmon back to sea

The Bush administration is smarting after losing another round in an increasingly bitter battle over the fate of thousands of endangered river salmon in the American North-west.

A Federal appeals court decided on Tuesday to uphold an earlier decision requiring the operators of five federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers to release spills of water to help young salmon on their journey towards the Pacific.

The salmon runs have been blocked by the five dams, which generate hydro-electric power. It is estimated that about half of the salmon that attempt the journey down the Snake River in eastern Washington State towards the ocean in the early summer are lost because of the dams.

The federal agency that runs the dams, the Bonneville Power Authority, had opposed the spills, arguing that they would cost $67m (£37m) in lost generation capacity.

The decision comes after a federal court judge threw out a $6bn government proposal to better manage the dwindling salmon stocks. He has branded the plan "arbitrary and capricious" and an exercise "more in cynicism than in sincerity".

The plan submitted by the Bush administration argued that the stocks were being stabilised by the practice of transporting about 70 per cent of the salmon around the dams in lorries and barges.

In upholding a lawsuit filed by fishing interests, conservationists and local Indian tribes, Judge James Redden squarely dismissed the argument. He said that the fish were "in serious decline and not evidencing signs of recovery".

Tuesday's appeals court decision to uphold his order for the spills was welcomed by environmentalist groups yesterday.

"That is good news for salmon, and that is good news for all the fishermen that depend on them and all the jobs that they support," said Todd True, a lawyer for environmental and fishing groups fighting for stronger protections for the fish.

However, it is likely further to galvanise conservative Republicans, who have long sought a dilution or rewriting of key environmental laws, especially the Endangered Species Act.

The controversy over the river salmon is the latest test of wills between the Bush administration and environmental groups.

More directly at stake, however, is the future of the river salmon as well as of the hydro-electric power network that supplies power to most of the region, including Seattle.

Efforts since the mid-1980s to protect the salmon runs have so far failed dismally. Twelve species of salmon in the basin are now on the endangered list and several have already been declared extinct.

Most conservationists contend that the only long-term solution is the decommissioning of at least some of the dams - a proposal Washington has so far refused to consider.

The government argues that creating spills for the salmon may do them more harm than good. In its appeal, it said that Judge Redden had failed to address "the crux of the case: whether an unproven experiment with spill as opposed to the expert agency's preferred transportation programme is required to prevent irreparable injury to the species".

"We really firmly believe that spilling fish in a low water year puts them at risk," said Brian Gorman, spokesman for the Fisheries Service in Seattle.

"The river moves more slowly; the reservoirs get warmer. Our science shows us that in low water years the safer thing to do is to move them past the dams and past the turbines."

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