Zeroing Out the Messenger

The sun sets over the Columbia River, the prize in a tug of war between hydroelectric power and salmon recovery.
The sun sets over the Columbia River, the prize in a tug of war between hydroelectric power and salmon recovery. (By Don Ryan -- Associated Press)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 30, 2005

PORTLAND, Ore. -- In a surgical strike from Capitol Hill, Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) has eliminated a little-known agency that counts endangered fish in the Columbia River.

The Fish Passage Center, with just 12 employees and a budget of $1.3 million, has been killed because it did not count fish in a way that suited Craig.

"Data cloaked in advocacy create confusion," Craig said on the Senate floor this month, after successfully inserting language in an energy and water appropriations bill that bans all future funding for the Fish Passage Center. "False science leads people to false choices."

Here in Portland, Michele DeHart, a fish biologist who is the longtime manager of the center, said she is not mad at Craig.

"What's the point?" asked DeHart, 55, who for nearly 20 years has run the agency that keeps score on the survival of endangered salmon as they negotiate federal dams in the Columbia and Snake rivers.

"I have never met the man," she said. "Never talked to him. No one from his office ever contacted us. I guess I am flabbergasted. We are biologists and computer scientists, and what we do is just math. Math can't hurt you."

But the mathematics of protecting salmon swimming in the nation's largest hydroelectric system can hurt your pocketbook -- particularly in the Northwest, where dams supply power to four out of five homes, more than anywhere in the country.

Salmon math has clearly riled up Craig, who in his last election campaign in 2002 received more money from electric utilities than from any other industry and who has been named "legislator of the year" by the National Hydropower Association.

The Fish Passage Center has documented, in excruciating statistical detail, how the Columbia-Snake hydroelectric system kills salmon. Its analyses of fish survival data also suggest that one way to increase salmon survival is to spill more water over dams, rather than feed it through electrical turbines.

This suggestion, though, is anathema to utilities -- and to Craig -- because water poured over dams means millions of dollars in lost electricity generation.

Last summer, a federal judge in Portland, using data and analysis from the Fish Passage Center, infuriated the utilities. He ordered that water be spilled over federal dams in the Snake River to increase salmon survival. Shortly after Judge James A. Redden issued his order, Craig began pushing to cut all funding for the Fish Passage Center.

"Idaho's water should not be flushed away on experimental policies based on cloudy, inexact assumption," Craig said in a news release.

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