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Fish Study Center Losing Funding

by Joe Rojas-Burke, Oregonian staff
The Oregonian, November 18, 2005

Research - U.S. Senate critics of the Portland-based Fish Passage Center
fault the data on dams and fish survival

Critics in the U.S. Senate have abolished a Portland-based science agency with a pivotal role in studying the Northwest's endangered salmon.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, led the drive to kill the Fish Passage Center, saying the 21-year-old public agency had strayed into an advocacy role and that other agencies are providing the same data and analyses.

The Energy and Water appropriations bill passed this week by Congress includes language added by Craig that strips the Fish Passage Center of funding.

Conservation groups, tribes and Oregon and Washington officials fought hard to save the center, which employs 11 people, mostly biologists and computer scientists. It is funded with revenue from the hydropower system.

Supporters said Craig was retaliating against the center because constituents, including farmers and electric utilities, don't like what agency studies say about how dams and water withdrawals hurt salmon.

"When they don't like the message, they are going to kill the messenger," said Michele DeHart, Fish Passage Center manager. The action could have a broader chilling effect, discouraging other scientists from presenting controversial findings, she said.

Work by center researchers has influenced U.S. District Judge James Redden, who has twice overturned the government's plan to operate the Columbia and Snake river hydropower system.

Craig took action against the Fish Passage Center in June, shortly after Redden ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to spill water over several hydropower dams last summer, an action that cost about $74 million in forgone power generation. The center produced some of the data on fish survival that supported the judge's order.

"It wasn't just expert testimony -- they took a position that supported one side of the argument. And that's plain advocacy," said Mike Tracy, a Craig spokesman.

DeHart said her agency has strictly carried out its mission of providing accurate data and objective analysis. She said the agency gave no testimony or declarations in the hydropower litigation and took no side.

"We've been honest and open. I don't think we would have lasted 20 years if we had not been," DeHart said.

Some fish and wildlife managers dispute Craig's assertion that others can provide studies more efficiently without the Fish Passage Center. Jeffrey Koenings, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in a letter to his state's congressional delegation that eliminating the center will increase salmon recovery costs by forcing states and tribes to add staff to do the work.

The center's work also has been validated by an independent scientific advisory panel convened by the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council in 2000. The panel recommended the council continue supporting the center.

The Bonneville Power Administration, which sells electricity produced by federal dams, provides money for the center, which has an annual budget of $1.1 million. BPA began funding the center after passage in 1980 of the Northwest Power Act, a law that calls for federal dams to be operated in a way that balances the needs of salmon with power, irrigation and barge shipping.

BPA took no position in the debate over the Fish Passage Center. But BPA recently extended the center's contract through March 2006 rather than let it expire at the end of this month.

The congressional language added by Craig directs BPA to work with the power council to designate an alternative agency or agencies to carry out salmon data collection and analysis. A BPA spokesman said the extension will provide time to carry out that direction.

Joe Rojas-Burke
Fish Study Center Losing Funding
The Oregonian, November 18, 2005

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