By TIM FOUGHT
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- The federal judge getting ready to decide whether the government is doing enough to save Columbia River salmon will have a question for its lawyers Monday: If you have plans in your hip pocket in case the fish numbers crash, why not put those plans to work now?
For good measure, Judge James Redden underlined the "now" in a memo he sent to the lawyers last week.
Redden holds a hearing Monday that is likely to be the last before he rules for a third time on government plans to manage Columbia River dams to save fish species protected by the Endangered Species Act but in precarious shape for decades. Twice before in litigation stretching back to the 20th century, he's turned thumbs down.
The hearing Monday deals with the Obama administration's first stab at the issue.
Tweaking a plan left over from the Bush administration, the national fisheries agency led by Oregonian Jane Lubchenco called for what it termed "rapid response actions" that would be handy, "on the shelf," if fish runs fall below expectations.
"What are those actions?" Redden wrote. "In light of the endangered Species Act ('ESA') mandate that the agencies give first priority to the species, why not implement those measures now?"
A spokesman for the NOAA Fisheries Service, Brian Gorman, said lawyers for the agency wouldn't reveal their answer until Monday.
Challenging the river plans are environmentalists, the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce tribe. They say the Obama administration's plan is mostly the same old, same old.
Redden's question illuminates the tension in the Pacific Northwest over Columbia River salmon runs. Columbia River dams have provided cheap electricity for decades, but they kill lots of salmon.
Changing dam operations to protect fish -- spilling extra water for fish rather than running it through turbines, for example -- reduces the hydroelectric power they can generate.
Overall, wild fish subject to Endangered Species Act protection account for less than 10 percent of Columbia Basin runs, but they include prized fish such as the Columbia and Snake River spring-run chinook salmon.
No single dam kills more than a small percentage of fish, but the cumulative toll is significant. Most of the dead are juveniles making their spring migration to the ocean.
The biggest source of tension could be the question of breaching of four dams on the Lower Snake River in Washington state.
Bowing to Redden, the Obama administration's plan acknowledges the idea as a last resort. It's one that would set off an uproar among water-dependent interests such as irrigating farmers and probably require Congress to act.
The Bush administration insisted the dams would never go. Environmentalists pressing the case against the river management plans believe dam removal is feasible and may be required, said Todd True, lawyer for Earthjustice.
Lubchenco herself is expected in the courtroom Monday. She was a marine ecologist at Oregon State University before President Barack Obama put her and other experts in charge of scientific agencies in a pointed contrast to Bush administration leaders, some accused of manipulating scientific and technical decisions for ideological purposes.
Lubchenco visited the Northwest, met with participants in the court case and took a hand in fashioning the new plan.
Environmental reporter Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass contributed to this story.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.