According to Oregon State University fisheries professor Carl Schreck, the Bonneville Power Administration's mon-opoly on funding influences the inquiries scientists conduct. "To me, it's not as simple as a matter of outright bias," he says. "What happens is that all the money gets directed to projects at the concrete (the dams). That's fine if you want to study spillway configuration, or improvements to bypass systems. 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." From the outside, Schreck observes, it looks like the issue is already lavishly funded through the BPA, and this makes it all the more difficult to find other funding sources for a large, long-term and potentially expensive project beyond the reach of the dams.
But this may be just what's needed, Schreck says. The cumulative effect of the dams may weaken salmon enough to eventually kill them in the estuary or ocean, even if they survive passage through every dam. Investigating this hypothesis, he says, may be one of the last frontiers of Columbia Basin salmon research.
The BPA may indirectly shape the questions scientists ask, but the agency is also not averse to taking a more direct approach, says Michele DeHart, director of the BPA-funded Fish Passage Center. Created by a 1980 law aimed at improving salmon runs, DeHart's organization, whose mission is to gather and interpret data on the Basin's salmon, has long been at odds with the BPA. In 2007, the organization barely survived an attempt by erstwhile Idaho Sen. Larry Craig to chop it out of the BPA's budget. Craig, once voted the National Hydropower Association's "Legislator of the Year," was riled by a 2005 Fish Passage Center report on water releases at the dams that showed increased flows seemed to improve salmon survival. The 9th Circuit Court admonished the BPA for following Craig, and ordered the restoration of the Fish Passage Center's modest $1.2 million annual budget. But the problems have not gone away. Language in a January draft of the BPA's Fish and Wildlife Program budget would have made it easier to curtail the center's duties, but the proposed changes didn't make the final cut.
DeHart believes that, through its funding decisions, the BPA rewards scientists whose conclusions tend to absolve the dams, and punishes those whose work might disagree. She worries that the threat of punitive budget cuts has created what she calls a conspiracy of silence. "I can't tell you how many times I've been on the phone or in a meeting and another scientist tells me ‘I can't say that,' or ‘I've been told I can't talk about that.' People are even afraid to write anything down," she says. She recommends a new funding mechanism, one entirely independent of the BPA's budget-making process.
Some other scientists echo DeHart's complaints. Back in the late 1990s, the BPA financed a multi-agency, consensus-based approach to solving some of the Columbia salmon's most vexing problems. The Plan for Analyzing and Testing Hypotheses, or PATH, involved 30 salmon scientists representing the BPA and other federal agencies as well as regional universities and private consulting firms. Together, they scrutinized every available management option, trying to determine which had the best chance of actually restoring the runs. Their conclusion was not one that the BPA was likely to appreciate: They calculated that breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River had an 80 percent chance of meeting long-term salmon recovery goals. After the PATH scientists announced their findings in late 1999, the BPA quickly pulled its funding, saying only that the project had "met its objectives."
"Put it this way, the BPA is not the National Science Foundation," says Howard Schaller, one of the PATH scientists and now the lead salmon biologist on the Columbia River for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "There's no question that PATH was terminated over the answers we gave."
To the BPA, PATH is ancient history. The agency says that its funding process these days is more fair and generous than ever before. In 2008 alone, the BPA spent $80 million dollars on salmon research. Another $75 million a year for the next 10 years has been earmarked for science should the 2008 recovery plan pass judicial muster. According to Bill Maslen, the director of the BPA's Fish and Wildlife Program, this money is doled out through an open, democratic and cooperative process. "Every year we go out and identify what projects need to be done, and we travel the region, trying to build consensus on what we can do. Then we fund projects accordingly. And we've done more of that consensus-building this year than we ever have in years past," he says.
Anderson's former grad student, Rich Zabel, says that funding pressures, or even the high-stakes legal battles in which his fish-passage model is used, have no effect at all on his work for NOAA. "I've never felt any political pressure here, and I'll tell you what, if I did, I'd quit (my job) kicking and screaming," he says. "My job is simply to produce the best science possible."