News from the Front #84:

Penned and Poisoned in the Redden Corral

As we reported in News from the Front #83, United States District Judge James Redden ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin spilling water over the tops of four Snake River Dams, rather than generating electricity.  As explained in that article, the program was virtually certain to injure juvenile salmon, not help them.  Within days, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin published an article noting that local fishermen in the vicinity of Little Goose Dam were complaining that the spill had "create[d] a whirlpool flow of water, which has interrupted [the adult salmon] going up the ladder . . .".   Neither Little Goose Dam nor any of the other Snake River dams were engineered to operate at such high spill levels, because until the early 1990s, Congress understood that spill meant wasting water that could otherwise be used to generate clean, renewable, low-cost electricity.  

As a result of the high spill levels, hundreds of fish arriving at Little Goose Dam simply could not make it past the dam. The flows of water were so strong, and so peculiar, that at some points water was apparently flowing into the bottoms of the adult fish ladders rather than out of them, destroying what biologists call "attraction flows" that permit the fish to find the ladders.  Daily fish counts at Little Goose and other projects showed an immediate and sharp drop in fish counts as the spill program commenced.  By Wednesday, June 29th, biologists at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were suggesting that as many as 2,200 salmon were penned up below Little Goose Dam.  

To make matters worse, spill was causing high levels of total dissolved gas in the rivers, exceeding water quality standards enacted to prevent damage to salmon.  The Corps' web pages showed frequent violations of the standards in "big, bold, red text".  So not only were the salmon penned up below Little Goose (and probably other dams as well), they were penned up in poisoned water.  No one has gathered any evidence of whether salmon were in fact harmed from the gas supersaturated water, but it does not appear that anyone even looked.

In a sane world, when the Corps observed that Judge Redden's spill program had shut down the salmon migration, the Corps would have told Judge Redden about it.  It was a golden opportunity to the Judge that the so-called "experts" claiming big benefits for fish he had relied upon obviously had no idea how the dams actually operate, or what might actually happen to salmon from increasing spill.  (Had the Judge permitted any questioning of these "experts" before making his decision and rejecting the Corps' recommendations, that might have become clear.)

But instead of telling Judge Redden that he made a big mistake trusting the environmentalists, the Corps spent the week negotiating with the environmentalists to get their blessing to reduce spill to minimize the damage to the salmon from complying with the Judge's injunction.  The environmentalists and their "experts" initially only acquiesced in minor adjustments to the spill program.  By Thursday, they had acquiesced in substantial spill cutbacks during the day at Little Goose, and as the above graph demonstrates, the fish are moving again -- at least until they hit the next Redden corral.  If any ordinary citizen essentially blocked all salmon runs on the Snake River for a week, they would probably face criminal prosecution, but no one will ever be held accountable here.

Indeed, we will probably never know the full damage arising from Judge Redden's spill program, because yet another side effect of excessive spill is directing juvenile fish away from detectors that help measure their survival.  And there may be an even greater problem than the "penning" effect on adults, namely "fallback", as the fish finally finding and navigating the fish ladders get sucked back over the dam by the enormous spills.  Salmon have finite energy, and fallback can decimate fish runs.  Bill Rudolph interviewed a Corps biologist in the latest NW Fishletter who said that the few fish that managed to get upstream were already "'pretty beat up' from the days spent milling around below the dam".  

Perhaps because spill destroys the economic benefits of the Snake River dams, and thereby supports the case for removing those dams, the One Truth Faith of environmentalists holds that we must blindly maximize spill at every turn.  A 2002 report by outside experts commissioned by the Northwest Power & Conservation Council concluded that no one had ever even conducted "an analysis that specifically evaluates the effects of existing spill programs on adult passage".  Unless and until there is some adult supervision of the salmon recovery fiasco, no one ever will.

The real world effects of salmon policies no longer matter; only whether they might be blessed by our self-anointed High Priests, the environmentalists.  Under the Bush Administration, obeisance to environmentalists is more important than following the law, or even following court orders.  Yesterday, the Bush Department of Justice held hands with the environmentalists and filed a Joint Status Report with Judge Redden omitting all factual details and proudly proclaiming: 

"The parties have worked cooperatively to arrive at these modifications to injunction spill operations and currently anticipate that they should resolve the adult passage issues.  If they do not, of course, the parties will continue their efforts to further modify operations and resolve these issues.  At this time, the parties do not anticipate any need to have the Court address these issues."

Under these circumstances, it is hard to understand why the Corps even bothered to appeal Judge Redden's injunction in the first place, but not hard to understand why (so far at least), the Court of Appeals has refused to set aside the injunction.  Those afraid to offend the High Priests dare not present heresy -- the truth about spill -- to the courts.

James Buchal, July 1, 2005

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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