Craig Helps Cut Funding
by Rocky Barker
Center's research showed ill effects of dams on fish
Northwest utilities scored a minor victory in Congress in November that will tip the short-term scientific debate over the impact of federal dams on endangered salmon and steelhead.
Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, with the acquiescence of Northwest Democrats, cut off funding for the Fish Passage Center, a team of fisheries scientists who analyze the impacts of the dams on salmon for Northwest state fish and wildlife agencies and Indian tribes.
Officials of the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets electricity generated by federal dams, met Friday with representatives of the Northwest Power and Wildlife Planning Council, appointed by the governors of Idaho, Oregon, Montana and Washington, to determine how to shift the duties of the 11-person $1.3 million agency to other entities.
Craig has taken most of the heat and the credit for pushing the legislation that was advocated by public utilities across the region that buy electricity from Bonneville Power. But Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray helped Craig get the provision attached to the budget bill, which has not yet passed.
The provision's approval shows that salmon fishermen, environmental groups and Indian tribes have far less political juice than their political opponents, the Bonneville Power Administration, its customers and other agriculture and industry groups dependent on the Snake and Columbia River system. When Bonneville is forced to spend more to aid salmon or, as it was ordered last summer, to spill water past its turbines and produce less power, utility rates increase. Idaho gets about 20 percent of its power from BPA, mostly in rural areas and Idaho Falls.
The Fish Passage Center, one of the institutions established after the passage of the Northwest Power Planning Act 25 years ago today, was designed to provide states and tribes with an independent analysis of how salmon were migrating through the dams.
It consistently has shown that despite dramatic changes in operations and costly bypass facilities at the eight dams between the Pacific and Idaho, millions of salmon migrating down stream die because of the dams. "The utilities and Bonneville don't like the message, so they just kill the messenger," said Michelle DeHart, the longtime director of the Fish Passage Center.
Craig and his staff disagree. The center has taken sides in the scientific debate between state and federal biologists over the impact of the dams, he says. "She (DeHart) took a position that supported one side of the argument, and that's advocacy," said Mike Tracy, a Craig spokesman.
The fish and wildlife agencies in Washington and Oregon defended the center but there was no major effort to save it, Idaho salmon advocates said. The congressional delegations gave no fight.
"The states of Oregon and Washington should have come to the aid of the Fish Passage Center, but they didn't even though they're Democrats," said Bert Bowler, a fisheries biologist with Idaho Rivers United. DeHart's defeat came despite regular glowing reviews of the center's work by independent scientists. She attributes it to a complete breakdown of the forces that came together with the Northwest Power Act in 1980 promising "equitable treatment" for salmon and power from the federal power system.
"We've always been honest; we've always been straight about the data even though lots of people didn't like it," DeHart said. "We need scientists to tell the truth and not be crushed and beaten down in silence." Craig and Murray inserted the provision that prohibited the BPA from funding the center after U.S. District Judge James Redden ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to spill water over dams earlier this year at a cost of $74 million to BPA. DeHart, at the request of Indian tribes had written analysis supporting Redden's order.
In the end, Craig and the states cut a deal that allows BPA to fund an agency that conducts the analysis now done by the Fish Passage Center, but it can't be the center.
That means DeHart is out. Her ouster also weakens the states' historic challenge to the federal view of science -- that barging and technological bypass systems can offset the impacts of the dams.
"They're dysfunctional," said Bowler, a former Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist. Craig's success begs the question of whether he and the rest of the Northwest delegation might go for a bill that would approve a recovery plan that falls short of what salmon advocates say is necessary to restore the fish. Such a bill, similar to legislation pressed by Sen. Mark Hatfield in the wake of a similar judicial decision on the spotted owl in the late 1980s, would override the Endangered Species Act.
Nobody is talking publicly right now about such a strategy. But Redden goes back to court Dec. 15 to hear federal officials plead for a dam management plan in 2006 that would spill far less water and cost Northwest ratepayers 10 times less than the operations plan proposed by salmon advocates.
If he turns them down, the battlefield could move from the courtroom to Congress.
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