the film
Commentaries and editorials

BPA's Spin Cloaks its Role
in Blocking Real Salmon Recovery

by Ed Chaney
Idaho Statesman, January 2, 2011

We are eyewitness to a con job of epic proportions. It is hidden in plain sight in the front-page article of the Sunday, Dec. 5, Statesman headlined, "Salmon success recasts debate."

The con is not so much what is stated in the article, as what is not said and what is implied by Bonneville Power Administration spinmeister Lorri Bodi, who of late plies her trade in the Statesman with disconcerting frequency.

The article focuses on the relative merits of barging salmon and steelhead around or spilling them past the federal dams on the lower Snake River. After decades of denial, Bonneville appears to concede that spill is better for salmon, but not for steelhead. Thus, according to Bodi, "we have a much narrower debate."

The so-called debate is a rigged game. Barging only shows a "benefit" when compared to the current deadly passage conditions for juvenile fish at and between the dams.

The salmon killers for whom Bodi speaks do not compare the adult returns from barged fish to the adult returns from non-barged fish if the dams and reservoirs were operated to maximize survival, or if the river were undammed. It's difficult not to notice how high this deck is stacked, though many have made the necessary effort.

The Corps of Engineers dams and reservoirs were not designed so juvenile salmon and steelhead could safely migrate downstream; disaster happened. For decades state, tribal and many federal fish scientists fought for spilling fish past the dams, long known to be the best of the poor immediately available alternatives.

Bonneville tenaciously resisted. Spilled water does not generate money to help pay off nuclear power plant and energy futures gambling debts and keep its subsidized customers happy.

In 1980, Congress reacted to the crisis of declining fish runs with what is commonly called the Northwest Power Act. Thanks to a handful of Idaho salmon advocates and Sen. Frank Church, the act mandated modifying the dams to restore salmon and steelhead to their pre-dam levels.

Bonneville went along to get more pork for its customers, then immediately set out to kill the salmon restoration promise of the act. With a lot of help from its pork-barrel friends, it eventually succeeded, thus making it inevitable that Snake River salmon and steelhead would be put on the list of endangered species.

Bonneville then focused its attention on protecting the dams and its revenue from the Endangered Species Act. It had a willing accomplice in the National Marine Fisheries Service during the George W. Bush administration, and now in the clueless Obama administration. Bonneville's strategy is simple and obvious:

  1. Interpret the Endangered Species Act as having so little force that even the current inadequate level of spill is not needed to comply.

  2. Use its power of the purse to bribe, politically pressure and otherwise drum up support for its position before the federal district court.
Spinmeister Bodi says, "We've put the fish on the path to recovery." Excuse me. Bonneville was forced by the court to spill water, which, along with coincidental good ocean conditions, produced the recent large returns of fish. Bonneville continues to fight to reduce the court-ordered spill, and to redefine the term "recovery" to mean that the threatened fish populations would not, on average, drop below the disastrously low levels in the 1990s.

Thus, Bonneville seeks to "narrow the debate" to how little water must be spilled at the dams to keep Snake River salmon and steelhead populations just shy of extinction. The law requiring the fish be restored to their pre-dam levels goes down the memory hole. This is your government at work.

Related Pages:
Resurgent NW Salmon Show Dam 'Spill' is Better than Barging by Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman, 12/5/10

Ed Chaney of Eagle has 40 years of professional experience with Snake River salmon issues. Read more at
BPA's Spin Cloaks its Role in Blocking Real Salmon Recovery
Idaho Statesman, January 2, 2011

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