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Commentaries and editorials

What Don't We Know
About the Columbia Salmon Plan?

by Steven Hawley
The Oregonian, March 19, 2010

The water supply for the Pacific Northwest for 2010 looks depressingly like it did in 2001. That was a profitable year for some of the Bonneville Power Administration's industrial customers. By laying off workers, shuttering their operations and selling their subsidized BPA power on the hyper-inflated spot electricity market, these "Direct Service Industry" clients earned themselves a cool $1.2 billion profit.

But a windfall for the aluminum industry was a downfall for salmon and the BPA. Mortality for out-migrating juvenile salmon topped 90 percent for some Snake River fish. The BPA hemorrhaged ratepayer money as if it were the Fed pulling out all the stops to save AIG, buying back dirt-cheap subsidized power contracts at going market rates. The power agency had commitments to supply 11,000 megawatts of power. But in a drought year, it had only 8,000 to give.

Ostensibly, those days are long gone. With the slumping economy, power demand is down. BPA customers flocked back to hydro after corporate deals made in the wake of deregulation proved too good to be true, allowing the agency to nurture a healthy rainy-day fund as well as meet its cumbersome debt payments to the U.S. Treasury. Best of all, the BPA claims it has finally solved the salmon crisis.

In a keynote address given last December to Northwest RiverPartners, a lobbying outfit representing Alcoa, Weyerhaeuser and many of the region's public and private utilities, BPA Administrator Steve Wright told the audience that the 2008 biological opinion -- known as a bi-op -- for Columbia and Snake River salmon, currently under review in federal court, should be celebrated "for its fidelity to the science, its allegiance to the law and its adherence to meaningful collaboration."

What records are available from that process suggests that there's a cork that might need to be popped from somewhere other than a champagne bottle. To acquire science that supports its bottom line, the BPA seems to have borrowed a familiar strategy from private industry. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the agency charged with determining whether the federal plan for the hydro system won't further jeopardize endangered salmon runs. NOAA's salmon research depends to an alarming degree on the BPA's money.

According to its own records, over the past decade the BPA has given $83 million to the Northwest Division of NOAA-Fisheries. Another $51 million comes from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That's a big investment in fidelity on behalf of federal defendants. But does the devotion flow to the legal standard of "the best available science"?

The best available evidence suggests not. In its review of the few new wrinkles added to the Bush-era bi-op by the Obama administration, the American Fisheries Society observed, "It appears that there is an undue emphasis on more monitoring and modeling than on implementing beneficial actions. A logical assumption therefore is that the primary output will be merely that [salmon population] declines are more accurately documented."

The fisheries society scientists who reviewed the bi-op, formally titled the Adaptive Management Implementation Plan, may have wondered how their cohorts could have come down with such an acute case of analysis paralysis. One possible answer: the management plan wasn't written by NOAA scientists. Court documents reflect a disturbing degree of autonomy on the part of federal defendants in composing the plan.

In an email exchange posted on The Oregonian's Web site, Army Corps Brig. Gen. William Rapp, commander of the Northwest Division, turns down an offer from BPA attorney Lori Bodi to re-write a section of the Adaptive Management Implementation Plan concerning Snake River dam breaching. Elsewhere, BPA policy analyst Jeff Stier appears to lay claim to his agency's authorship of significant portions of the bi-op itself: "The extinction risk analyses are ours, the analytic approach is ours," wrote Stier as the agency prepped to sell the bi-op last April to the incoming Obama administration.

These "action" agencies are withholding records that might refute the initial impression of collusion rather than collaboration. Of utmost concern is the review of the management plan done by a panel of scientists last summer. Of more than 200 relevant documents identified, only 70 have seen the light of day. These records should be made available to the public in full. Only then will ratepayers be able to confirm that Steve Wright's closing remarks to Northwest RiverPartners were meant in the best available faith: "Thank you for your support, advice, counsel. You got us to where we are."

Steven Hawley is a writer in Hood River with a forthcoming book on the Northwest salmon crisis.
What Don't We Know About the Columbia Salmon Plan?
The Oregonian, March 19, 2010

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