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.   

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."

The BPA's influence on the science behind the salmon debate may not have been limited to funding. 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, and then as director of the agency's Fish and Wildlife Program. Salmon advocates criticized his performance in both jobs, and were not pleased when George Bush appointed him to NOAA in 2001.  

In 2003, Lohn announced the creation of a new Office of Salmon Recovery whose sole mission would be to deal with threatened and endangered salmon in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Tapped to lead the new office was Rob Walton. Walton, like Lohn, is not a scientist; he came to NOAA from a job at a utility lobby that opposes salmon recovery measures that take more water from the hydropower system. But Lohn did hire a scientist, former NPCC staffer Bruce Suzumoto, to be his assistant director at NOAA Fisheries. Suzumoto worked for the same utility lobby as Walton, and before that was a biologist for a public utility company.

During Lohn's tenure, in 2004, NOAA tried to convince Redden's court that mainstem Columbia and Snake River dams have become an integral and unassailable part of the landscape, and should therefore be exempt from changes to make them more friendly to creatures such as salmon. Redden was not impressed, and threatened heavy-handed judicial management of the hydrosystem if NOAA couldn't come up with a more credible opinion.

Though Lohn stepped down the day Barack Obama was inaugurated, his legacy in policy and personnel matters will be felt for some time to come. A memo he issued in September 2006 directed NOAA scientists away from a process, encouraged by Judge Redden, that provided for greater cooperation between state, tribal, and federal science agencies in crafting a better recovery plan. The Lohn memo, salmon advocates argued in court last month, came up with a new path to achieve the same result in the 2008 recovery plan as in years gone by -- that no major changes to the Columbia River's hydropower system are needed. What inspired Lohn to issue this decree remains something of a mystery.

But part of the answer might be gleaned from a late 2006 exchange between Schaller's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office and NOAA Fisheries. Around the same time Lohn was drafting his memo, NOAA invited a team of Fish and Wildlife scientists to provide feedback on the latest version of its fish passage model, the one managed by Zabel, which is now included in the plan before Judge Redden. Schaller and his colleagues wrote that NOAA's model relied too little on conditions in the river, and too heavily on what happens in the ocean. What happened next came as a surprise. "We were told by NOAA that our input would no longer be needed in the process," Schaller says.

Keeping the scientific discussion more open, at least one panel of experts has noted, will be essential to making real progress on salmon recovery. The Council of Elders, a group that includes five veteran Columbia River fisheries biologists who between them have about a century and a half of experience in the Basin's salmon wars, have called for nothing less than the dawn of a new era in addressing the salmon impasse. Describing the federal response to the salmon's Endangered Species Act listing as "continually skewed," they recently recommended that the recovery effort be coordinated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service instead of NOAA, and that the BPA's recovery program be immediately audited. Their report notes that politics as usual on the Columbia preceded the Bush years, and will likely persist into the future, unless the Obama administration sets a bold new course.        

With his many years of experience, Dr. Anderson might qualify for membership in the Council of Elders, but he's not waiting for an invitation. Instead, he's still at work in his sparsely furnished office. He thinks the data gathered over the past decade might soon render the latest version of his original computer model obsolete. "Rich (Zabel) is a whiz kid," Anderson says of his former student, "but I think he's taken that model about as far as it can go."

Anderson has read articles published by Oregon State University's Schreck and Fish and Wildlife's Schaller, and is keenly interested in their notion that the dams' cumulative impacts on ocean-bound juvenile salmon may not show up until they reach the estuary. He's looking forward to working with his graduate students on a research project investigating the matter, poised to start in coming weeks as young salmon begin to make their break for the sea. "I've been very lucky," he says. "The BPA has been gracious to me, and let me study exactly the things I've wanted to for most of my career. Who knows, we may yet tell them something they don't want to hear."

This is the first article in a two-part series looking back and ahead at the plight of the Columbia Basin's salmon.

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.

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