Columbia Basin (Political) Science

An investigation into the Bonneville Power Administration's influence on salmon research

  • Paul Lachine
  • Paul Lachine

Sparsely furnished with only a desk, chair and computer, Dr. James Anderson's office in the Fisheries Science Department at the University of Washington reflects the fastidious mind of a seasoned scientist. Graying and soft-spoken, eager to discuss the intricacies of his work, Anderson seems at home in this building full of ambitious and hyper-intelligent biology nerds. He specializes in a branch of science known as fish-passage modeling -- complex mathematical calculations that estimate the effect of a range of possible river and ocean conditions on the health of migrating salmon. For three decades now, Anderson has focused on salmon passage through the federal dams on the Columbia River and its largest tributary, the Snake.

Less than a century ago, some 15 million salmon returned to their home waters in the Columbia Basin every year, some to creeks over a thousand miles from the ocean and more than a mile above sea level. Now, they're extinct in a third of their former range and severely impaired where they remain, with 13 of 16 stocks listed as threatened or endangered. Though mining, logging, farming and urban development have taken their toll, many fisheries scientists say the main culprit is the 11 dams blocking the mainstem Columbia and Snake. 

Anderson's models, however, have consistently shown something different: that dams are not nearly as hard on salmon as their detractors have made them out to be. And he says that helping salmon survive isn't as simple as diverting water from electricity-producing turbines and returning it to the fish.  

  Anderson's work has had a lot of influence on the great salmon debate in the Columbia Basin. Rich Zabel, who earned his Ph.D. under Anderson, took a version of his mentor's model to his job at the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, the agency responsible for the recovery of threatened and endangered salmon. Over the years, NOAA has refined the model to account for a flood of new data, but its prognostications haven't deviated too far from Anderson's, more than a decade ago. And last month, when federal Judge James Redden convened his court to hear about NOAA's latest salmon recovery plan, the model was part of the science behind a familiar federal argument: Salmon actually don't need much more water than federal hydropower producers are willing to give them.

That's a controversial idea, to say the least. But Anderson says conclusions to the contrary deserve scrutiny, too. He believes that, on occasion, state and tribal fisheries managers and salmon advocates have bent data to fit their fish-friendly conclusions. "Once, early on, I pointed out the problems with a model salmon advocates were using," he recalls. "It showed salmon survival increasing to beyond 100 percent, commensurate with an increase in water flow. Well, that's just not possible, and I said so. At lunch the people from their side wouldn't even talk to me."

Not that Anderson minds a scientific quarrel. "If I find an argument that's horrid, I'll tell people that I think it's bunk. And I got really irritated along the way when I thought people were presenting opinions and hypotheses that were drawn by what they wanted the final result to be."

Anderson may believe that a kind of sentimentality about salmon has compromised science along the Columbia, but his critics hint that his own work has been tainted by money. The Bonneville Power Administration, the New Deal-spawned federal agency that markets and sells electricity produced by the Columbia Basin's dams, funds both Anderson's work as a university professor and as a private consultant. Armed with the results of his own modeling work, Anderson has testified in Congress on behalf of the BPA as well as for corporations like aluminum giant Alcoa, which enjoys heavily subsidized power contracts with the BPA. His testimony has reliably bolstered the BPA's claim that it's already doing everything it reasonably can for salmon. He's said that increased flows won't help salmon negotiate the dams, spoken out against a plan to breach four dams on the Lower Snake River, and approved of new irrigation schemes for agribusiness.  

Anderson's industry-friendly conclusions may seem dubious in light of who's paying for them. But funding arrangements like this aren't all that unusual in the realm of Columbia Basin salmon research. Several laws and treaties oblige the BPA to foot the bill for salmon recovery and science, and it also funds projects at its own discretion.

By its own reckoning, the BPA has spent somewhere between $8 and $9 billion over the past 30 years to bring salmon back to a semblance of their former abundance. The agency finances the vast majority of salmon research in the Columbia River Basin. It pays for graduate salmon study at major regional universities. It commissions research from private consultants. It pays tribal and state agencies to conduct their own biological inquiries. It gives generously, in some years, to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It has underwritten the Portland office of NOAA-Fisheries, the very agency charged with determining whether or not the BPA needs to make dramatic changes to the hydropower system to ensure salmon survival.

The investment, however, has not paid off. Most listed salmon stocks have continued to decline, and none are headed toward recovery. And the program's ineffectiveness, some scientists say, is due in part to the BPA's influence over how that money is spent.   

Lubchenco has lots of work to do...
Apr 13, 2009 03:48 PM
Let's hope the new head of NOAA can set things straight so that actual science is used to inform the agenda of BPA. The way they've been going, the salmon don't have a chance.

What About Canada?
Jan Steinman
Jan Steinman
Apr 15, 2009 11:45 AM
Last I checked, the Columbia Basin extends north of the 49th parallel, but your reporter's research did not. How are logging and run-of-the-river projects in British Columbia affecting salmon in the basin? Perhaps it isn't damns, nor estuaries, that is the problem -- or more likely, perhaps the <b>entire</b> basin should be considered, regardless of political boundaries.
Fish passage
Chuck Brushwood
Chuck Brushwood
Apr 15, 2009 02:45 PM
While it's true that the Basin extends into Canada, anadromous fish for the most part do not. Fish passage on the main stem Columbia ends at Chief Joseph Dam, near Bridgeport, WA. Some salmon do cross the border by way of the Okanogan River, but just barely; they encounter another passage barrier at McIntyre Dam north of Oliver B.C.

So while human activities in Canada (logging, mining, agriculture) surely do affect downstream habitat, fish barriers are the major obstacle to salmon recovery in the Canadian portion of the Basin. Restoring anadromous fish in the blocked areas should be part of the recovery plan, and that means removing or modifying dams.
Here's what about Canada
Another Greg
Another Greg
Apr 17, 2009 05:04 PM
Grand Coulee Dam
Columbia R.
Apr 15, 2009 02:01 PM
I spent about 4 summer months on a boat going up and down the Columbia R. from the Pacific Coast to Clarkston, and occasionally up the Snake on a "jet"boat. I am not diploma'd scientist, however after seeing this great river turning increasingly an opaque green complete with floating algae - at least in some parts - did not impress me as an environment attractive to any Salmonid species. As months passed, many times I looked over and down into the fish ladders of numerous dams to see what appeared to me to be very few fish. I assumed that the poor things just weren't yet "running", however as I waited and waited through mid summer until mid October it came to be realised that the "run" or "runs" where actually observed and this realization left quite an impression on me, particularly as one of the journal entries in Lewis and Clarks describes how profoundly impressed they were by the multitudes of Salmon present. It does not take a scientist to know that past and present development and management is an insult to the intelligent public and the fish.

G. Kent Degler
Where's the beef?
Christopher J. Earle
Christopher J. Earle
Apr 15, 2009 04:19 PM
This piece reads like a story without a story. The author seems to want to say that skullduggery is afoot at BPA and NMFS, but he's mighty short on evidence. To address a few of his points: (1) BPA throws all their salmon money at the question of how hydropower and dams affect salmon, but other factors may be more important. This is news? BPA operates these dams and has been the defendant in numerous lawsuits alleging that they are responsible for salmon decline. Of course they're going to spend their science money defending themselves against that charge, and in the process, building a better understanding of how to manage dams and flow to minimize the damage. If it doesn't tell the whole picture, maybe some lawsuits should be filed against a few more bad actors - or maybe we could actually spend some federal dollars to commission independent research. (2) BPA isn't studying the estuary. Well, actually, they are, but more importantly, LOTS of other well-funded researchers with NMFS, various universities, NGOs, and the states of Oregon and Washington have been studying the estuary. More to the point, everybody (not just BPA) ignored the estuary pretty much until about 2000, and since then BPA along with everyone else has "discovered" (the data were there in the 1970s) that the estuary is really important to juvenile salmon. (3) Bob Lohn used to work for BPA. Heavens! This is an ancient and meaningless trick in "investigative" journalism; show that there's a connection between two "adversaries" that aren't really adversaries. The fact is that nearly everyone who studies salmon in the Northwest has taken BPA money at some point or another because (a) there's a hell of a lot of it rolling around, and (b) there are lots of agreements where BPA is obligated to fund various "good works" relating to salmon - some of which have nothing to do with dams or hydro. For this reason any attempt to portray BPA as a "black hat" group is simplistic. I've dealt with Mr. Lohn on occasion; he's crafty, pragmatic, and I think he did a hell of a good job protecting salmon as well as he did under the Bush administration. If USFWS has been shut out of the salmon debate on occasion, it might be because they have no jurisdictional authority, and consequently their biologists are not assigned to salmon work, facts that the author conveniently omits to mention. (4) There is no "Council of Elders" that has the inside track on salmon science. There are literally hundreds, maybe thousands of fisheries biologists working with a swarm of organizations to try to find a way to keep Columbia salmon runs running, and there are more blue-ribbon commissions running around than you can shake a gavel at. The awful truth is that this is a very complex problem, with significant scientific questions that still haven't been answered, and there will never be a simple solution. One of the few things we have to be thankful for is that there is at least a mechanism whereby the groups that have contributed to the problem can be compelled to help cover the cost of the solution. Without BPA and their big checkbook, salmon would have fared much worse over the past 20 years.
salmon comments
Steve Hawley
Steve Hawley
Apr 20, 2009 12:21 AM
Thank you for your thoughtful response to the article. I will concede that there are some aspects of the salmon issue on the Columbia that are complex. But the extraordinary volume of salmon science proceeds from a relatively simple legally and legislatively affirmed idea that citizens of the region want salmon to persist in the Columbia Basin.
My point in writing the article was that there's ample evidence for two different kinds of science: one that honestly proceeds from this premise, and another that, for a host of possible reasons, does not.
The former body of science suggests quite clearly that dramatic changes to the way the Columbia is managed will have to be taken on if salmon are to survive.Of course there are no guarantees in making such a move; even the best science can't predict the future.
The latter body of work contrasts the former quite clearly. It states, as you have just written, that the issue is complex, involving a host of variables almost always in constant flux, then tends to draw conclusions that place the burden for salmon recovery away from the hydrosystem.
Since you repeated this pattern, and since you spoke of personal contact with Mr.Lohn, I will admit that journalistic curiosity got the best of me and I googled your name. And so now I have to ask: is this the same Christopher J.Earle that works for a firm that has represented the federal family on salmon matters in the past? Including the PATH study I wrote about in the article?
Flawed story and conclusions
Apr 17, 2009 10:24 AM
Any conclusions readers might draw from this article are fatally flawed. Readers simply didn’t get the whole story. Not only did the article include factual errors and omit balancing views, but it also missed dramatic, positive changes surrounding Northwest salmon protection in recent years.

States, tribes and federal agencies that once stood on different sides now stand together behind the region’s new salmon strategy. Consider the supporters: five tribes, three of the four Northwest states, and scientists from many agencies. We’ve never had this kind of agreement before and we wouldn’t have it without a solid foundation of science we agree on.

The most basic facts in the article are wrong. Start with the most obvious: “Most listed salmon stocks have continued to decline, and none are headed toward recovery.” Not true. An average of about 400 wild Snake River fall chinook returned to the river in the first half of the 1990s, when the species was listed under the Endangered Species Act. The average return over the last five years is more than 5,000 wild fish, well above minimum recovery thresholds. More are expected back this year than any year since the early 1970s, when the last dams were built. Salmon are not out of the woods, but they’re on the right track. Snake River spring chinook, sockeye and other stocks also show positive trends.

Another example from the article is the quote: “But if you want to study what happens to salmon in the estuary after juveniles make it through the system, that's just not a study anyone's interested in funding.” A simple search of funding data on BPA’s website shows many millions of BPA and other dollars spent on estuary research in recent years, including studies of the food webs that juvenile fish depend on and tracking of juvenile fish through the estuary and into the ocean, specifically to tell what happens to them.

For example, BPA is funding the Fish Passage Center, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and one of NOAA’s independent science centers to examine delayed effects of the hydroelectric system on fish. We recently committed to 10 years of funding for the Fish Passage Center, whose director complains in the article about punitive budget cuts. If we supported only scientists who support us, how is it that almost every scientist who criticized us in the article has received BPA funding?

The article also misrepresents BPA’s role in selecting research proposals for funding. All proposals arrive through open solicitations. They then go through required review by independent scientists chosen through a process involving the National Research Council. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council then makes recommendations based on the science review. BPA’s decisions must be consistent with these recommendations.

The law has structured this process with a strong set of checks and balances to prevent exactly what the author alleges in the article. The proof is in the outcome: the sheer diversity of research we fund demonstrates the openness and fairness of the selection process, and the fact that we funded over $50 million of research, monitoring and evaluation projects last year reflects a strong commitment to a salmon strategy informed by science.

There is a good story here: It’s a story about how much we’ve learned about the Northwest’s salmon and steelhead and how to protect them, how fish stocks are coming back in numbers that were unimaginable a few years ago and how the region has finally united behind a clear plan to continue this progress. We hope High Country News will take an interest in how far we’ve come, and we’d be glad to help.

Greg Delwiche
Vice President, Environment, Fish and Wildlife
Bonneville Power Administration
salmon article
Steve Hawley
Steve Hawley
Apr 20, 2009 02:58 PM
    While I don’t believe that any of the conclusions one might draw from my article would be fatal, as Mr. Delwiche suggests, if misinformation could be a catalyst for sudden death, then I should take issue with the claims in his letter, if for no other reason than as a public health service.
    It is true that “states, tribes and federal agencies that once stood on different sides now stand together,” on a federal salmon plan, but Mr. Delwiche conveniently omits the portion of this foundation built from cash rather than “solid science.” Tribal support for this, and any future biological opinions will cost the BPA, or rather its ratepayers, $1 billion over the next decade. This outlay is earmarked for a good cause, salmon-friendly hatchery and restoration projects that the respective tribes hold dear. But in order to seal the deal, these tribes not only had to agree unconditionally to support current and future biological opinions, but rescind their outspoken opposition to federal opinions of years past, much of which was based in science that contradicted the BPA’s preferred management options. This is hardly a hallmark of the democratic consensus Mr. Delwiche describes.
    Mr. Delwiche then disputes the article’s statement that “most listed salmon stocks have continued to decline, and none are headed toward recovery,” offering the example of wild Snake River fall chinook as evidence. But the actual plight of these fish supports my statement, as well as the gist of my article, rather than refuting it.
      Mr. Delwiche’s assessment that salmon are “not out of the woods” here is accurate, though a more apropos metaphor might be “not out of hot water.” A century ago, this run averaged 450,000 returning salmon a year. 80% of their historical spawning habitat was lost to the construction of four dams on the lower Snake River.
     The benchmark that Mr. Delwiche identifies as a “recovery threshold” is labeled a “minimum viability threshold” in the scientific literature. In other words, it is the least possible number that avoids a trend toward extinction. This is a different metric than recovery. The ten-year average return for these fish misses even this minimal standard. However, I do agree with Mr. Delwiche that the comeback of fall chinook here is cause for cautious optimism. The question is whether or not the BPA should get any credit for this short-term bounce.
    Did Judge Redden’s court ordered spill program, which puts more water in the Snake for salmon when they need it most, account for some of this increase? Or was it better ocean conditions? The data show spill works. But the BPA has no intention of sticking with spill long enough to confirm this. They call for the curtailment of this action in the biological opinion before Redden. Thus Mr. Delwiche is either taking credit for a recovery measure his agency had to be dragged into court to implement, and will quit as soon as the law allows, or for cycles in the ocean over which the BPA has no control.
        Mr. Delwiche then touts his agency’s bankrolling of the Fish Passage Center as further proof of their funding of a diversity of opinions. But the BPA does not want to pay for the Fish Passage Center’s work, despite consistent approval by an independent review panel. Mr. Delwiche may have forgotten it was the Fish Passage Center’s publication of data in 2005 that confirmed Redden’s spill order is good for salmon. It shows improved flow to be especially good for Snake River chinook, the very species he brags about his agency having nurtured back to good health. He apparently forgot as well that the BPA had to be sued (again) to cough up funding for the Fish Passage Center in 2007, and that as recently as January, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, as part of their recommendations to the BPA, was mulling over an administrative move that would have significantly curtailed the Fish Passage Center’s operations.
    Contrast this with another research effort to which Mr. Delwiche makes oblique reference, one that “tracks juvenile fish through the estuary and into the ocean.” The BPA did indeed dole out more than $5 million to the Kintama Research Corporation for one such study. Kintama’s CEO, Dr. David Welch, published a paper that claims the undammed Fraser River in Canada ushers young salmon to sea as well as the dammed Columbia does. As it turns out, Dr. Welch’s contention was based on some rather thin data, causing even some of his co-authors to hedge from the paper’s primary thesis.
     Dr. Welch’s oversights may only be a case of the considerable pressure in his line of work to publish or perish. But the matter is complicated by the fact that he lists a former NPCC member, Dr. Larry Cassidy, on his board of directors. Dr. Welch pitched his project to the NPCC on what can only be described as friendly terms.
    I concede Mr. Delwiche’s point that there’s a good story here, and admit that in the process of responding to him, I’ve come to regret not having the chance to ask him directly at least one question that might have made a good story better: If, as Mr. Delwiche writes, “The law has structured this process with a strong set of checks and balances to prevent exactly what the author alleges in the article,” how do you explain the stark contrasts in the treatment of the Fish Passage Center and Kintama, or Dr. Anderson?
    This was the discrepancy that initially caught my eye. Until Mr. Delwiche or someone else from the BPA can explain the matter with a more forthright set of facts, I’ll stand by the story as written.
Steve Hawley
salmon article
Apr 24, 2009 10:41 AM
The author, as most reporters, contributes to the debate about the effects of dams on the survival of Columbia River basin salmon stocks by highlighting data that fits his beliefs. As with probably greater than 99% of the people arguing the issues, he lacks intimate familiarity with the data and is swayed by those to whom he talks. Some data he hits 'right on'...13 of 16 ESUs listed; dams have blocked a third of historical spawning habitat. He implies that dams and their operations limit or prevent the recovery of the Columbia River salmon without clearly articulating that the decline of fish stocks resulted from a combination of anthropogenic factors in broad categories of excess harvest, hatchery practices, habitat degradation, and hydropower dams. Further, he fails to acknowledge the significant role that variability in climate conditions, both in freshwater and the ocean have on stock productivity. Focusing just on dams is an indication of bias.

As an example of his misunderstandings of the issues, he was incorrect about the effects of "construction of four lower dams on the Snake River". Had he read the Status Review of Snake River fall Chinook salmon by Waples et al. (1991) he would know that few fish historically utilized the area where the lower Snake River Dams were constructed. The ESUs more than 80% decline occurred from blockage of upper Snake River spawning areas, with the "coup de grace" construction of Brownlee Dam by Idaho Power Company in Hells Canyon. The number of fall Chinook salmon spawning in the remaining available habitat is now likely near capacity. It is unclear if removal of lower Snake River dams would do much to change this situation.

The issue of 'recovery of stocks' is contentious. In fact, no one has ever adequately defined what recovery constitutes...assurance that stocks will not go extinct (the bar used for most endangered species), or some level that will allow historic rates of harvest. Presently, some ESA listed stocks have harvest rates of > 35%; would anyone have accepted that with Bald eagles?

The issues about effects of Columbia River dams would not have spent decades in court if data clearly indicated that salmon stocks will go extinct with dams in place. A poll of everyone who thinks about, cares about, or is involved with salmon would probably receive 100% concurrence with a statement that "All anadromous fish stocks will do better in a river without dams." So everyone would agree that we would likely have more adult salmon returns without dams. That then is not the real issue. I would argue, the debate revolves (rather subtly) around allocation. Clearly, dams kill some percentage of the juvenile salmon. This decreases the potential adult return that otherwise would occur if dams did not exist. Thus, society at present (or those in positions to make decisions) have allocated some of the adult salmon to dams at the expense of other harvesters (humans or marine mammals or birds). Could we recover stocks to levels estimated 150 years ago if the Columbia River basin had no dams? I think not, unless we also removed most of the European immigrants and restored all habitat to pre-immigrant status. Would removing some of the dams make a huge difference? If the data were clear, the debate would not rage.
A comment about the Power Council
John Harrison
John Harrison
Apr 21, 2009 12:22 PM

    According to the article above, "Former NOAA Fisheries Northwest Region Director Bob Lohn is a lawyer who spent most of the 1990s working for the BPA, first as general counsel for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NPCC), a BPA-sponsored entity charged with balancing the needs of hydropower and salmon ..." In fact, the Council is an independent agency of the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, not a federal agency or part of Bonneville. The Northwest Power Act, which is the law the article identifies as "a 1980 law aimed at improving salmon runs" (it does a lot more than that, too), authorized the four Northwest states to create the Council as an interstate compact, which the legislatures did in January 1981. The Power Act also specifically says that the Council is not a federal agency and that the Council members and staff are not federal employees. Council members are appointed by the four governors. We employees report to the Council's executive director, who is hired by the Council members. Thus, Bob Lohn did not work for BPA when he was at the Council (twice, actually, once as general counsel and once as fish and wildlife director).
    I also take issue with the term "BPA-sponsored." The Council's "sponsors" are the four Northwest states and the U.S. Congress, which first authorized the establishment of the organization. The sponsorship implication probably comes from the fact that the Power Act requires Bonneville to fund the Council. The Act establishes a statutory formula based on a fraction of Bonneville's revenue from firm-power sales. But that is the only connection. Bonneville does not control the Council's budget. Under the Power Act, the Council tells Bonneville how much it will need annually, within the range established by the formulas in the Power Act. Bonneville does not tell the Council how much it will get.
    Congress authorized the states to create the Council and directed the Council to create a plan for future electricity sources and energy conservation (every five years we look 20 years into the future), which includes a program to mitigate the impacts of hydropower dams in the Columbia River Basin on fish and wildlife -- all fish and wildlife, including threatened and endangered species -- and related spawning grounds and habitat. So it's not just salmon. It's resident fish and wildlife, as well. The Power Act authorized the Council, an independent interstate compact, to perform a sort of check and balance on Bonneville, the region's largest electricity provider. The Act requires the Bonneville administrator to make decisions that are consistent with the Council's planning. Importantly, the Act does not make Bonneville subservient to the Council; but neither is the Council subservient to Bonneville. Thus, we work together to implement the requirements of the Power Act.
    If I can help with information on any future stories about fish and wildlife mitigation or power planning under the Power Act, please contact me.
    John Harrison, Information Officer, Northwest Power and Conservation Council