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.
On the Senate floor this month, he justified elimination of the Fish Passage Center on the grounds that "many questions have arisen regarding the reliability of the technical data" it publishes. Craig quoted from the report of an independent scientific advisory board that in 2003 reviewed work done by the Fish Passage Center.
But one of the report's authors, Charles C. Coutant, a fishery ecologist who retired this year from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said Craig neglected to mention that the board found the work of the center to be "of high technical quality."
"Craig was very selective in reflecting just the critical part of a quotation from the report," said Coutant, who has worked on Columbia River salmon issues for 16 years. "It did give a misleading impression about our board's view of the Fish Passage Center."
Craig also said on the Senate floor that "other institutions" in the Northwest now do "most" of the data collection work done by center. He said getting rid of the center would reduce redundancy and increase the efficiency of regional fish programs.
But according to another recent independent scientific assessment of the work of the center, there was little duplication of data collection between the center and other organizations; it recommended that the center continue to receive funding to meet a substantial need in the Northwest for information on salmon survival.
Fish and game agencies in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, Indian tribes with fishing rights on the river and the governors of Oregon and Washington have all said that eliminating the Fish Passage Center is a bad idea that would reduce the quality of information on endangered salmon.
Echoing a number of regional experts on salmon recovery, Jeffrey P. Koenings, director of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department, said in a letter to the regional congressional delegation that it makes no economic sense to kill the center. "Eliminating or reducing funding for the Fish Passage Center will actually increase salmon recovery costs, as the states and tribes will need additional staff to replace the lost functions," he wrote.
Money for the center has come from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a federal agency that sells power from federal dams. In 1980, Congress passed a law ordering that salmon in the Columbia hydro-system receive "equitable treatment," along with electricity generation, irrigation and barge transport. BPA was compelled to fund the Fish Passage Center in 1984 as part of the effort to ensure equitable treatment for fish.
Craig blocked this funding mechanism by inserting a sentence in an energy and water spending bill that says, "The Bonneville Power Administration may make no new obligations in support of the Fish Passage Center."
Here in Portland, DeHart said she did not want to speculate about Craig's motives. "I guess it is just that old cliche about killing the messenger," said DeHart, whose office will close in March.
Other prominent players in the region's decades-old salmon vs. power debate are less reticent.
Don Chapman, an Idaho fisheries biologist who has worked for regional utilities, state agencies and environmental groups, wrote Craig a letter accusing him of bad faith. "I state flatly that your attempt to dismantle the Fish Passage Center is wrongheaded and vindictive," he wrote.
Asked about these charges, Craig's spokesman, Dan Whiting, responded by e-mail: "This is about improving the program, taking advocacy out of science and ensuring we have dams and salmon in the Northwest. It is not about vindictiveness or retribution by Sen. Craig -- that is not his style."