News from the Front #93:

Looters Limit Out on BPA Salmon Dollars

Now more than ever, as we sink in a cesspool of public and private debt brought on by a corrupted federal government, and we all tighten our belts, we can ill afford wasteful public spending.  BPA’s recent announcements of “Memoranda of Agreement” (MOAs) with Pacific Northwest States and Tribes promise just that, with substantial hikes in electricity rates to fund another billion in salmon spending, and no real public benefits at all.   And the MOAs only set a floor for wasteful fish and wildlife spending, not a ceiling.

The general design of the MOAs is a wholesale subversion of the decisionmaking processes crafted by elected officials in favor of agency decisionmaking by contract with special interests.  The Northwest Power and Conservation Council has been charged by Congress to develop the Region’s fish and wildlife plan, and BPA is by law supposed to follow that plan, funding programs the Council and its independent scientists identify as appropriate.   The Tribal MOA gives lip service to the Council’s program, but warns that it contains “specific and binding funding commitments” irrespective of Council decisions.  Thus big new programs will be established to promote salmon parasites (lamprey), irrespective of the lack of public or Council support for such programs. 

The National Marine Fisheries Service is supposed to review actions concerning endangered and threatened fish, but through the MOAs, many of the choices NMFS would dictate are now to be specified by agreement with the special interest groups.  The dam operators will now be bound by contract to take the fish out of transport barges, irrespective of scientific evidence proving higher survival.  They will be bound to spill water at dams, irrespective of scientific evidence proving massive outbreaks of gas bubble disease.  The Tribal MOA even attempts to bind NMFS to approve the wholesale gillnetting of endangered salmon, declaring that “tribal treaty fishing rights were present effects of past federal actions that must be included in the environmental baseline” and that the MOA is based on the “assumption that NOAA Fisheries will give ESA coverage” to future harvests.  Ordinarily, scientifically-based natural resource management decisions might be expected to evolve based on better science, but the MOAs even attempt to prevent such scientific evolution.

Under the Tribal MOA, all of the federal agencies that actually know something about dam passage and salmon survival are now to be forbidden from supporting “in any manner actions that undermine the Fish Passage Center” and must support it “in any forum”.  Up until now, a few brave BPA analysts have pointed out what is either staggering fraud or incompetence on the part of the Center, most famously the “upriver/downriver” comparison promoted by the Center to justify dam removal.  There the Center exploited the fact that fish migrating hundreds of miles further upstream do have lower survival, because they must pass hundreds of miles of natural predators.  By ignoring the incremental mortality associated with incremental migration distance, the Fish Passage Center successfully fooled many in the Region into believing that “science” proved that dams were limiting salmon recovery.  By promoting a “latent mortality” theory criticized by the Council’s independent scientists, the Fish Passage Center has grossly exaggerated dam impacts and sabotaged smolt transportation programs.

The scientific underpinnings of the Fish Passage Center’s anti-dam jihad have now collapsed to the point where the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s “Council Quarterly” publication recently reported that “survival past dams does not appear to be a big problem”.  Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking Program researchers report that “when you compare raw survival estimates, there appears to be no difference in the survival of migrating fish in the Fraser and Columbia Rivers . . .  However, when you scale that for distance, survival of the fish migrating out of the Columbia through eight dams is higher actually higher than in the Fraser River”—with no dams.

Real scientists, unlike those at the Center, do not need their political allies to gag those who would embarrass them with data.  And if these agencies had any respect for law, they would recognize that they cannot possibly discharge their duties to use the best available scientific information in federal decisionmaking by committing themselves to fund junk science and gagging their own scientists.  Administrator Wright stands in the shoes of a long line of governmental authorities who have attempted to defend a particular view of the world from scientific advancement, going all the way back to Galileo’s trials with the Church of Rome.

Spending another billion or so through the MOAs is imagined to be appropriate “mitigation” for the effects of dam operations.  The most obvious problem with the “mitigation” theory is that there must be some adverse impact to “mitigate”.  With higher-than-natural survival up and down the Columbia, there is nothing to mitigate; there is most probably “overmitigation”.

A more subtle problem with mitigation is that it presupposes some sort of legal entitlement to compensation.  The Tribes that are to receive the lion’s share of the billion dollars have already been fully compensated, years ago.  For example, in Agreement No. DA-35-0260ENG-20098, executed in 1954, the Yakima Tribe took over $15 million (over $120 million in today’s dollars) in exchange for its promise to “release and forever discharge the Government . . . from all manner of action and causes of action . . . which the Tribe or . . . their people or their descendents may now or hereafter have by reason of or resulting from the construction, operation and maintenance of the [The Dalles Dam] Project”.   All of the parties to the Tribal MOA signed agreements like this, and were paid in full for the present discounted value of all the fish ever to be caught in the Columbia River. 

Yet the Tribal MOA specifically calls for further “mitigation for the losses to anadromous fish caused by the construction of . . . The Dalles Dam”.  BPA cannot possibly lawfully pay the Tribes again for the same losses they released in 1954, but BPA has been shoveling out money for decades to the Tribes and others with no accountability.  Many of the so-called “settlement” agreements have never been made public.

BPA no longer feels bound even to pretend that the funding has something to do with asserted losses caused by Federal Columbia River Power System dams.  Thus BPA proposes to pay one Tribe to “inventory and assess habitat status and needs for anadromous reintroductions in Eastern Oregon tributaries above Hells Canyon Dam”.  Hells Canyon Dam is operated by Idaho Power Company, not party to the MOA, and unlike most of the BPA-run projects, it is an absolute barrier to salmon migration.  It is impossible even to conceive a rationale under which BPA ratepayers are supposed to pay to figure out how to reintroduce fish above someone else’s dam—not to mention being an obvious and utter waste of public funds. 

The MOA payments are most clearly understood as a gross looting of the public till.  BPA has the choice of obeying its Congressional mandate to sell power at the “lowest possible rates”, or jacking up the rates to create a slush fund for looters.  Administrator Wright was recently chastised by the United States Court of Appeals for raising rates by billions of dollars to fund illegal payments to the investor-owned utility (IOU) looters.  In slapping him down, the Ninth Circuit observed that “Congress ordained one system; BPA appears to prefer another”, and declared that “the settlement agreements between BPA and the IOUs are inconsistent with the [Northwest Power Act]”. 

The same is true of these MOAs.   But Administrator Wright has no regard for law; he declares in the Tribal MOA that “regardless of any legal challenge, BPA will take steps to . . . imbed the estimated cost of implementing this Agreement in the agency’s revenue requirement to be recovered through base wholesale power rates”.  By jacking up the rates right away, the slush fund will be created, and BPA can always dribble the money out later in ways that the public will never see.

No one is left to speak for the ratepayers.  The largest BPA customers have been exterminated as part of BPA’s anti-industrialization policy.  The Region’s public utilities, governed by publicly-elected boards largely ignorant of what is really going on, remain silent.  Seven years ago, a Regional executive warned in a prescient speech that BPA has “come full circle, from an agency run by engineers who built things, to an agency run by political hacks who ration out the declining benefits from decaying capital to political supporters”.  He concluded:

“The New Deal dream was that impartial, expert administrators, freed from traditional legal and Constitutional constraints, could bring immense public benefits to citizens of the United States.  For a time, the dream was realized.  But now BPA and other New Deal agencies are in the hands of those whose conception of the public interest is far removed from that of the ordinary citizen.  The rise of such unaccountable, yet highly-politicized bureaucracies is one of the greatest threats to the Nation.   The citizens of the Pacific Northwest cannot, by themselves, save the Nation.  But they can save the hydropower assets of the Pacific Northwest, and put their management back on a path that will continue to bring immense public benefits to the citizens who have been paying for the assets for over sixty years.”

As a new Great Depression looms, and rapidly-rising transportation costs threaten to isolate the Pacific Northwest and its markets, it is painful to watch the Region squandering its natural advantage in low-cost electricity to build salmon bureaucracies that produce only paper fish, killing the real ones. 

  © James Buchal, April 22, 2008

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