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News from the Front #31:

The Downward Spiral Continues:  Governors Demand Back-to-Nature Salmon Plan and Council Obliges

In 1980, Congress punted fish and wildlife management questions raised by operation of dams in the Columbia River Basin to the Northwest Power Planning Council, a four-state interstate compact formed by Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho.  Congress charged the Council to develop a fish and wildlife program consisting of specific "measures to protect, mitigate and enhance fish and wildlife affected by the development, operation and management" of hydroelectric projects on the Columbia River and its tributaries, and declared that federal agencies should follow the Council's program.  

On August 18, 2000, the Council released its latest draft fish and wildlife program, an amazing document that evidences the final collapse of empirical science in the Region's planning efforts for salmon.  In place of biology, the Council adopts the emerging religion that treats undisturbed Nature as the highest good, and its Holy Trinity:  more flow, more spill, and less transportation of salmon.   The document also represents a twisted sort of perfection in ultimate salmon process and planning, in that it contains essentially no specific measures with any concrete effects on fish and wildlife.  It is best understood as a spiritual document.

The Governors of Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Montana propelled the Council down this path when they issued formal recommendations to the Council in July.  According to the Governors, "we prefer to benefit salmon through strategies and actions that emphasize and build upon natural processes".  According to the Governors, this is "an important policy decision that will . . . clarify the region's choice of strategies and allow us to make most effective use of our finite financial resources".  

The Governors are half right.  The "back to Nature" strategy for salmon recovery is an enormously important policy choice.  It is a policy choice so important that no one dares put it to a vote of the people, because it would likely fail.  Ordinary citizens would recognize that the Governors are dead wrong:  you can't "make most effective use of our finite financial resources" by committing the Region to restoring a state of Nature in the Northwest.  But the Council has responded to its masters (Council members are appointed by the Governors) with what they want:  the overarching strategy of this new fish and wildlife plan is to "provide conditions in the hydrosystem for adult and juvenile fish that most closely approximate natural physical and biological conditions".

The Religious Commitment to More Spill

Front and center among the Council's recommendations is the idea that spill, wasting the power of the Columbia by spilling it over the top of the dams, "should be the baseline against which to measure the effectiveness of other passage methods" for salmon.  If the Council had any interest in discharging its duties under law, it would recognize that the only sensible baseline against which to measure efforts to mitigate the effects of the dams is survival without the dams.  But, as NMFS' recent biological opinion demonstrates, survival through the dams (with transportation) is already as high, if not higher, than a natural river.  

An unbiased examination of the facts would suggest that dam operators have nothing left to mitigate, as they are not only producing very high survivals for migrating salmon, but also mitigating lost habitat from upriver dams through hatchery programs.  Recognizing this, of course, would leave the Council with no mission, other than the other task at which it fails miserably:  power planning.  

When Congress passed the Northwest Power Act, the principal sponsor of the fish and wildlife provisions warned that "the bill cannot and should not undo the power developments of the past.  Power and fish and wildlife can and should be compatible."  Thus Congress decreed that the Council use least cost fish and wildlife measures, and directed the Council to assure that its fish and wildlife program assured "the Pacific Northwest an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power supply".  

Right now, energy-dependent Northwest industries are closing their doors, and electricity prices are at all-time highs.  The Council's new program declares that this is not a problem:  so long as hydropower marketed by the Bonneville Power Administration is cheaper than California electricity, the power is "economical".  And as long as we can keep the lights on by shutting down industry, the power supply is "adequate" and "reliable".  The statutory command for "efficiency", put in question by wasting much of the power in the river by spilling it over the top of the dams, is not discussed. 

Since spill costs can exceed $2 million a fish, spill is obviously not a "least cost" measure.  But because there are no specific measures in the plan, only aspirational statements in favor of spill, the Council can duck the question of whether it has put "least cost" measures in its plans. 

The Religious Commitment to More Flow

According to the Governors, "stream and river reaches throughout the Columbia River Basin have flow and water quality problems that impede regional fish recovery efforts".  What this really means is that the Fish Recovery Empire has established impossible standards (e.g., high-flowing cold rivers in August) that can never be met, so that there are always more problems for Government to solve.  The Governors declare that "flow management in the Columbia and Snake mainstems should continue"; perhaps recognizing the total failure of proof of any benefits, they declare that "federal agencies must document the benefits of flow augmentation".  This is classic government science:  announce the conclusion and demand that the bureaucrats create evidence to support it.

The Council members have hastened to oblige their masters, adopting the back-to-Nature strategy of flow management so that "patterns of flow tend more than at present toward the natural hydrographic pattern".  In a natural system, some of the highest salmon mortality rates known come from spring floods washing out salmon redds (nests); rivers regulated to avoid this phenomenon, like the Hanford reach, show higher-than-natural returns.  It's not about the fish.  

The Religious Attack on Transportation

The Governors are forced to acknowledge what they call "survival benefits from continuing to use fish transportation as a transitional strategy".  Thus a call to the Faith:  "when [not if] ongoing research affirms that survival of listed salmon populations would increase from migration in an improved river environment, an increasing number of juvenile salmon should then be allowed to migrate inriver".  Note that the Governors dare not acknowledge the inevitable truth:  transportation will always provide higher survival because it enables the fish to avoid natural predators as well as dam-caused mortality.  Again, it's not about what's best for the fish:  so long as river conditions are good enough to improve populations, the Governors say that the fish should be removed from barges even if the barges would provide a higher survival rate.

The Council once again adopts the exact position demanded by the Governors.  One wonders why the Council even bothers to solicit public comment on its fish and wildlife plans.  Like every other salmon recovery process I know of, public participation in the Council's efforts is no more than a cruel charade that diverts citizens from taking real action to promote salmon recovery.

The Irrelevancy of the Council

If the Governors had any interest in defending the sovereign authority of their States, rather than kissing up to the Empire, they would instruct the Council to challenge the abusive and ever-increasing authority asserted by the federal government under the Endangered Species Act.  Instead, Council declares that the feds, "acting under the authority of the Endangered Species Act, will be prescribing detailed conditions for the improvement and operation of the hydrosystem . . . Thus, this program does not contain specific operating conditions . . ."  The Council is an interstate compact created precisely to control federal authority, but this Council has abandoned that function.

Like the bully who collapses in the face of a courageous opponent, and finds a weaker one to pick on, the Council shirks confrontation with the feds and reaches downward to usurp state and local planning authority through the primary innovation in this fish and wildlife program:  "subbasin planning".  The Council announces yet another huge and cumbersome process that will fool hundreds of localities throughout the Pacific Northwest into believing that they might influence the Empire's heavy hand upon their citizens, only to discover that "the Council will require that subbasin plans demonstrate their relationship to [Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act] requirements".  In the end, only what the Empire demands will matter.  

Conclusion

Communist-style central planning never works.  But as long as the citizens of the Pacific Northwest continue to elect the politicians who promote it, the Council will continue to produce reams of planning documents that metastasize into abusive assertions of authority by federal officials and their state and local quislings.

James Buchal, September 7, 2000

You have permission to reprint this article, and are encouraged to do so. The sooner people figure out what's going on, the quicker we'll have more fish in the rivers.

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