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Originally published April 25, 2012 at 8:52 PM | Page modified April 26, 2012 at 6:10 AM

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Snake River dams should go, says judge now off the case

The Snake River dams, the subject of litigation between salmon advocates and hydropower supporters, ought to be removed, says the federal judge who until recently presided over the case.

Times environment reporter

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The federal judge who presided over a court battle that pitted Columbia River salmon advocates against hydropower supporters told a television interviewer that four controversial lower Snake River dams should be removed.

In his first interview since stepping down from the case last fall, U.S. District Court Judge James Redden told Aaron Kunz, of Idaho Public Television in Boise, "I think we need to take those dams down."

During the interview for a documentary to air later this summer, the Portland-based judge, who presided over the Columbia River case for more than a decade, said the government and the Bonneville Power Administration had made vast improvements for salmon by increasing the flow of water through the Columbia's hydropower system.

They have "done things with the dams, spent a lot of money on all the dams, the Columbia and the Snake River — the spills, which they do not like — that has been very helpful," Redden said. But "I think we need to take those dams down."

Redden seemed to imply that removing the Snake River dams could make a significant difference in the health of threatened and endangered salmon runs on the Columbia system. "Those four Snake River dams don't really get a lot of — it's not that needed," Redden said.

The judge's comments, released this week by the station as part of a collaboration with Northwest public-radio stations, seemed to suggest he agreed with environmentalists and salmon supporters who have argued for years that salmon declines won't be reversed unless the dams are removed. The statements prompted immediate praise and criticism.

"It's certainly a welcome announcement to see that's what he believes after basically studying this issue for 10 years," said Nicole Cordan, policy director for Save Our Wild Salmon. "It's reaffirming to have this very smart man who came to this issue unbiased and over the years has looked at the law and the scientific and policy choices and come to this conclusion. It feels good."

But Terry Flores, with Northwest RiverPartners, a group representing farmers, electric utilities, ports and others opposed to dam removal, said she was taken aback by his words.

"All of us who have been putting years, literally, into working together and looking critically at the science and frankly seeing these huge investments being made to change dam operations — we've been scratching our heads over why the judge seemed to struggle with endorsing the plan," Flores said. "But his remarks explain that he apparently had a certain mindset. He clearly harbored strong feelings about dam removal."

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @craigawelch.

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