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This summer's plan for imperiled salmon

A judge orders spillover in five dams in the Northwest. But will the current approach reverse the steep decline?

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Like a salmon fighting its way upstream and faced with a massive concrete dam, the Bush administration has come smack up against the Endangered Species Act in its effort to save fish headed for extinction.

A federal judge has ruled that the administration's plan to reverse the historically steep decline in Columbia River salmon violates what is arguably the most comprehensive US environmental law. And for starters, US District Judge James Redden ordered that more water be spilled over five major hydropower dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers this summer.

That will benefit the fish. But it also will raise the price of electricity in the region, and it could adversely impact farmers who rely on irrigation - especially during the current drought.

This ruling is good news for environmentalists, native American tribes, fishing communities, and biologists. But power generators, businesses, and regional politicians warn that it could make things worse at an enormous cost to the region, beginning with an extra $67 million in electric bills.

Judge Redden's decision no doubt will be appealed. But some critics of his ruling threaten to get around the courts by asking President Bush to invoke the rarely used "God Squad" - a panel of seven cabinet secretaries that has the power to put economic considerations ahead of species protection in deciding such issues.

Lurking in the shadows of the political debate: whether or not to breach any of the major dams in the Columbia Basin that have been the main reason that annual salmon runs have plummeted to a small fraction of their historic numbers.

In some ways, the fight over salmon in the Pacific Northwest makes the notorious spotted-owl story seem easy by comparison.

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