Sen. Gorton Targets
Joan Laatz Jewett, The Oregonian - March 26, 1998
The Army Corps of Engineers has come under congressional scrutiny for paying people as much as $12 each to respond to a survey about the recreational value of four lower Snake River dams.
Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., is threatening to hold up the corps' budget until he gets answers to his questions about the $300,000 survey, which has as much as $30,000 budgeted to pay people for their responses.
"He's concerned for two reasons," said Cynthia Bergman, Gorton's press secretary. "One, it's this huge abuse of taxpayer money, and two, all we hear from this agency is how broke they are."
The corps' budget request for 1999 is being reviewed today by a Senate committee.
The survey attempts to gauge public sentiment about how breaching the four lower Snake River dams would affect recreation. Advocates of breaching the dams contend it would help endangered salmon and steelhead recover. Those who oppose breaching say the dams are needed for navigation, power generation and irrigation.
Besides ending power generation and barge navigation, breaching the dams would eliminate about 114 miles of slack-water reservoirs, which are popular with boaters and waterskiers. But it would leave a natural river, providing opportunities for rafters and kayakers.
Gorton, an opponent of breaching the dams, said the corps survey is biased in favor of the controversial project.
"We didn't even address how ridiculous the questions are," Bergman said. "We'll do that later."
The corps would not give The Oregonian details about questions in the survey, which will be sent in April to 10,000 randomly selected people in Oregon, Washington and California. Each survey will include a $2 bill as incentive to respond.
Another 4,000 surveys might be sent out later, said Dutch Meier, spokesman for the corps' Walla Walla District office, which is conducting the survey. Results are expected by July.
Test surveys were sent out in January with $2 bills to 150 people who were promised an additional $10 if they returned the surveys and participated in follow-up telephone interviews. About 100 people responded, Meier said.
In random surveys where no compensation is offered for responding, the return rate is typically less than 10 percent, according to Tim Hibbitts of the polling firm Davis & Hibbitts Inc.
The test survey responses helped craft the final questions that will go out, Meier said.
He defended the decision to pay people for responses, saying that the importance of the survey and its potential effect demanded a high level of participation. The consulting firm conducting the survey, Normandeau Associates of Bedford, N.H., recommended payment as the way to get the highest return, Meier said.
"The more responses we get, the more authoritative the information is expected to be," he said.
Six versions of questions
The survey consists of six versions, each of which focuses on different ways of helping salmon, according to a corps briefing paper sent this week to members of the Northwest congressional delegation. One survey, the paper says, assumes that transporting juvenile salmon in barges and trucks is the only way to meet recovery needs. The other five represent dam breaching as the most effective way to meet recovery goals.
Many of the questions in the surveys represent conclusions that "may not be related to absolute fact," the briefing document says. It states that consultants say absolute statements garner more accurate responses that hypothetical questions.
The survey is part of a $17 million study the corps is conducting on breaching the four lower Snake River dams as a way to aid salmon and steelhead recovery. The study is looking at the economic costs and benefits of breaching the dams as well as the benefits to fish.
The corps is scheduled to make recommendations to Congress in late 1999 on whether to breach the dams, keep them as they are or make extensive modifications to help fish.
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