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Dueling Science Snags Dam-Breaching Debate

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, December 26, 1999

Scientists who studied the issue for four years
are stunned when a federal agency does an about-face on its findings

Facing the apparently unstoppable decline of Snake River salmon, the U.S. government in the summer of 1995 hired two dozen independent and respected fisheries scientists to identify the most effective remedy.

After four years of study costing $8 million, the scientists came back with a stunning conclusion: Breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River would be the best way to save from extinction the salmon that spawn in Idaho and Eastern Oregon. Removing the dams would be more helpful, they calculated, than using barges to carry baby fish around the dams or modifying the dams to make them more navigable to migrating fish.

It seemed, after decades of debate, the scientific verdict was in.

But it wasn't.

The National Marine Fisheries Service -- the federal agency that commissioned the scientists and is in charge of salmon recovery -- now says breaching the dams may not make sense. And it has recommended that the scientists' rigorous, $8 million search for an answer -- called PATH, for Plan for Analyzing and Testing Hypotheses -- be halted.

Scientists across the Northwest are appalled. How, they ask, could their discipline -- in this case, PATH's objective analysis by scientists from throughout the region -- be so undercut?

And they say what no one wants to hear: Findings are controlled by who does them. Science is being manipulated for political purposes.

"Almost every scientist I interact with is amazed and appalled at the fisheries service's abandonment of the PATH process and findings," said Ted Koch, president of the Idaho chapter of the American Fisheries Society and a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Boise. "They've done a complete about-face."

The fisheries service has launched a new research effort, this time conducted by a dozen staff scientists at the agency's regional headquarters in Seattle. Agency officials say the new research has found that measures such as improving water quality or decreasing fishing levels may be as effective at saving salmon as breaching dams.

"These salmon face major risks," said Donna Darm, the fisheries service's deputy regional director. "Taking out dams may not be the best way to reduce those risks."

Darm calls the allegation that the fisheries service abandoned PATH because it did not like its conclusions "a hard charge to counter." But, she said, "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Still, even steadfast opponents of dam removal suspect there is more to the fisheries service's change of heart than pure science.

Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, said the fisheries service has championed efforts at aiding salmon while leaving dams untouched. For that reason, he said, the agency's scientists tend to oppose breaching dams.

"The fisheries service has a basic bias towards taking the existing system and making it work better," said Lovelin, whose association represents electricity customers and other industrial users of the river.

Jim Anderson, a University of Washington biologist, was among a minority of PATH scientists in his belief that barging is preferred to breaching, and he dissented on PATH's final conclusion. But Anderson now accuses the fisheries service research team of "using the mathematics" in such a way as to manipulate science and move attention away from dams.

He calls the team "clever" in advancing its bias.

Most fisheries scientists in the Northwest call breaching the four Snake River dams -- removing their earthen portions and allowing the river to flow unobstructed past the remaining concrete structures -- the best way to save Snake River salmon.

The action was endorsed this year by the Idaho chapter of the American Fisheries Society and by that organization's western division. The state fish and wildlife commissions of Idaho, Oregon and Washington have called breaching the most certain way to save salmon. And 200 scientists from across the region have sent President Clinton a letter calling breaching best for salmon.

That those conclusions are being pushed aside by the fisheries service is not what bothers Gretchen Oosterhout, an Oregon consultant who studies institutional decision-making. Oosterhout calls the PATH process, which cost $8 million through four years, a textbook example of how to make tough decisions.

"PATH came out with these findings, which were unusually unambiguous for a bunch of scientists," said Oosterhout, now consulting for conservationists and tribes. "Then the fisheries service said it would take four to six months and do a better job. As an outside observer, I was kind of stunned."

PATH scientists are downright angry.

Paul Wilson is a biologist with the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority in Portland, an organization that represents states, tribes and federal agencies that conduct salmon restoration efforts. Wilson considers breaching the best option and was happy with PATH's conclusion. But he is outraged that the fisheries service is re-examining the question.

"What's the point of going through this process of trying to determine scientifically the best way to recover salmon? If you don't get the answer you want, you just throw it out?" Wilson said.

Don Swartz, a retired Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist now consulting for conservation groups, said: "The National Marine Fisheries Service is 180 degrees from where it was a month ago. It's my personal view that politics are getting involved in the science."

Industrial users of the Columbia Basin river system and representatives of inland ports are predictably delighted with the federal agency's directive to abandon PATH's findings.

Removing the dams would make it impossible for grain-carrying barges to navigate a 140-mile stretch of river extending as far east as Lewiston, Idaho. It would end generation of 1,200 megawatts of electrical power, raising residential electricity bills in the Northwest by $2 to $5 a month. And it would dry the irrigation pumps of 13 large farming operations near Pasco, Wash., that draw water from the pool behind Ice Harbor Dam.

"We have started to turn the corner," said Claud Leinbach, a power plant mechanic for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a founder of the Coalition for Responsible River Use, an organization created to oppose dam removal. "We feel a lot better now."

When it launched the PATH effort in 1995, the fisheries service said it would recommend in 1999 whether the dams should be breached. Now officials, citing uncertainties raised by their new research, say they may recommend deferring a decision and leaving the dams in place while they gather more scientific information.

Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes with treaty rights to Columbia salmon, charges that the fisheries service has deliberately created confusion to justify delay. The tribal fish commission advocates breaching the dams.

"They are muddying the science because they don't want to face this issue in a presidential election year," Sampson said.

Darm, the fisheries service deputy regional director, says that some angry with the agency's change of course seem more interested in removing dams than saving salmon.

"It's huge decision to take out dams," Darm said. "It's very expensive. It's very disruptive. People should not be afraid to look at all the science."

Jonathan Brinckman
Dueling Science Snags Dam-Breaching Debate
The Oregonian, December 26, 1999

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