Don't Mess with Salmon Successby Paul VanDevelder, Guest Columnist
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 16, 2005
In half a human lifetime man-made impoundments on the Columbia and Snake rivers have reduced the richest anadramous fish factory on our planet into an aquatic graveyard of slack water ponds. When the battle to rescue salmon stocks from extinction reached a "Waterloo moment" in June, it appeared that "best available science" might triumph over the political puppeteering of the Bush administration.
On that turnabout afternoon in Portland, Ore., U.S. District Judge James Redden described the administration's recovery plan for salmon as having been made "more in cynicism than sincerity" and ordered the administration back to the drawing board. In the same breath, he told the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that sells hydroelectric power generated by federal dams in the Pacific Northwest, to spill water from four of its dams to help juvenile salmon reach the sea.
Federal and state fisheries biologists have long advocated "summer spills" as a surefire method of boosting fish survival rates. The spills, they argue, sustain two environmental conditions considered vital to healthy fisheries: They help to flush smolts to the sea and they reduce water temperatures that otherwise become lethally hot to migrating fish in July and August.
That's fine and dandy for the fish, say officials of the BPA, but the spills come at a high cost to electric ratepayers, irrigators and barge operators. The BPA predicted the judge's injunction would cost $67 million in lost revenue.
But lost revenues were not the only numbers the judge had to ponder. Scientific data gathered by an independent agency, the Fish Passage Center, showed that the BPA's strategy of trucking and barging fish around dams has been a $3 billion boondoggle. Under the care of BPA hydrologists, fish survival rates have plummeted. In June, the judge set aside the projected loss and ruled in favor of the fish. Within days, Idaho Sen. Larry E. Craig (named "Legislator of the Year" by the National Hydropower Association) inserted language into a Senate energy bill that would "zero out" funding for the Fish Passage Center.
The FPC, as it is known, was established in 1984 after Congress passed the Northwest Power Act, a toothsome law that put salmon protection on an "equal footing" with power generators, barge operators, ratepayers and irrigators. For more than 20 years, the FPC has collected and distributed scientific data to state, tribal and federal fisheries biologists and the courts. The center's longtime manager, Michele DeHart, admits that data has put politicians between a rock and a wet place by proving, conclusively, that the hydro-power infrastructure kill fish.
Nevertheless, "I guess I am flabbergasted," says DeHart, whose agency is now scheduled to vanish in March. "We are biologists and computer scientists, and what we do is just math."
The rider that Craig attached to the Senate energy bill is a shot across Redden's bow. As the man responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act on the Columbia and Snake rivers, Redden relies on scientific data to make sound decisions. "I think it would be a drastic mistake for them (Congress) to yank the subsidy from the center (FPC) which has been giving out neutral information for many years," said Redden at a hearing on Sept. 30. "I hope that does not happen."
Craig attempted to explain his action in a speech to the Senate, in November, by claiming that data gathered by the FPC is "cloaked in advocacy" and that "false science leads people to false choices." Inexplicably, neither Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden or Washington Sens. Patty Murray nor Maria Cantwell, challenged Craig's nonsensical assertions.
Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Tribal Fish Commission, says Craig's assault on the FPC is "the best possible science meeting the worst possible politics," an argument echoed by Melinda Eden, chairwoman of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. "We've been asking for years for people with hard evidence of irregularities (in data) to step up," says Eden, "and nobody has brought us a single piece of concrete evidence."
The reasons are plain enough. Two decades of scientific data supports neither the BPA's recovery strategy nor the senator's make-believe world. When the spill concluded last September, the FPC announced that smolt survival rates in the lower Snake River were the "highest recorded in recent years," a year-over year jump from 30 percent to 74 percent. Craig finessed that embarrassing detail in his speech to the Senate. Nor did he mention that the BPA actually reduced its late summer wholesale rates by 1.6 percent thanks to surplus power sales that exceeded forecasts by $20 million.
In other words, why own up to the irksome truth when you can kill the messenger with the stroke of a pen?
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