Raining Money: Corps’ Lower Snake Dig will cost $99 million

Meet “Eddie,” Larry’s conceptual  proposal for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Walla Walla District mascot. A 50-foot tall version may be painted on the face of Lower Granite Dam to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2015.

The 20-year cost of maintaining a shipping channel in the lower Snake River, just in the vicinity of Lewiston alone, comes in at a hair shy of $100 million. The new estimate is based on updated numbers released by the Corps of Engineers in March, and a memorandum the Port of Lewiston signed with the Corps in April. Both the cost per cubic yard of dredged material and the area to be dredged have increased over earlier estimates made in January.

Based on  annual averages for barges arriving at the Port of Lewiston, the subsidy for each barge–the amount of which comes from federal and local taxes–is $16,415. The price tag jumps to  $21,525 per barge when the cost of a $16 million Corps study on the feasibility of dredging the area is incorporated into the estimate, which asssumes a conservative inflation rate of 2% over a twenty-year period.

Lin Laughy of Kooskia, Idaho crunched the numbers for the estimate. Part of Laughy’s motivation for doing so is that the Corps of Engineers did not include a cost-benefit analysis in their own ten-year, $16 million dollar report on dredging this portion of the Snake River.

Local citizens and river advocates are questioning whether lavish subsidies which have kept the Port of Lewiston afloat since its inception in 1958 are any longer worth the money.

The reservoir behind Lower Granite Dam is rapidly being inundated by silt from the Clearwater and Snake Rivers. Due to the likely increase of forest fires, which will inject more sediment into these river systems,  it’s possible that both the Corps’ and Laughy’s estimates are on the low end of what dredging will cost.

The costs included in Laughy’s estimate do not include maintenance and repair at the locks of each of four dams on the lower Snake that stretch from Pasco, Washington to Lewiston, Idaho, nor the price of dredging the 140-mile long shipping channel that facilitates barge traffic between the two cities.

DREDGE REPORT: Activists to Corps: If you find yourself in a hole, don’t start digging.

The Corps' can't quite remember how to perform a credible cost-benefit analysis

The Corps’ can’t quite remember how to perform a credible cost-benefit analysis

Like seven cases of undiagnosed genital herpes stepping off the plane from an Asian sex tour and headed  for spring break in Fort Lauderdale, the virus incubating in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to resume dredging the Snake River has gone dangerously under-reported, and the risks to the health of the general population are looming large.

The scaly, oozing, burning, insatiable itch infecting the Corps with a desire to muck out a shipping channel around Lewiston, Idaho has not been scratched since 2002, when  river advocates won an injunction against  dredging until the Corps could come up with an assessment of the environmental costs of containing the Snake River within the Corps’ ditch. But like a recalcitrant infected vd carrier refusing to give up the list of the past few years’ sex partners to the epidemiologist, the Corp has refused to change its tune.

Instead, the Corps is requesting that tax-payers foot the bill for a 20-year,  $100 million  dredging program for the Port of Lewiston, which couldn’t out-earn your neighborhood 7-11. The POL employs five people, and has never in the history of its existence operated in the black, instead relying on local, state and federal taxes to stay afloat.

Last January,  the Corps’ draft Environmental Impact Statement came off the presses. The ten-year, $16 million report concluded the best medicine the Corps could come up with was more plowing in the bed of the Snake, to commence as soon as regional politicians could grease the wheels to make it happen. Yet that report has proven to have some permanent and fatal errors. The Corps refused to crunch the numbers even for a cursory cost-benefit analysis of their proposed big dig. Politically it was a wise decision. The only thing dropping faster than salmon populations in the Snake is the amount of barge traffic headed up or down river from Pasco to Lewiston. That, coupled with research from Washington State University Economics professor Ken Casavant, which makes a compelling case that rail is more efficient than barge, and suddenly the Corps’ proposal on the Snake has the same appeal to the average tax-payer as that leach snacking on the scrotum of that unlucky swamp-swimming kid in the movie Stand By Me.

Lin Laughy’s clinical dissection of The Corps’ Draft dredging plan was published in a previous post here on Larry.  The highlights: Each barge that leaves the docks in Lewiston will be subsidized by U.S. taxpayers to the tune of $13 to $18 grand. As it turns out, in light of some new numbers the Corps recently released, that actual subsidy is higher. How much? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on Larry.

Welcome to Larry

Dear Readers,

Meet Larry, the monthly online journal for people about salmon.  Larry aims to interest the public in the public interest, and provide a forum for discussing the best available information about Pacific salmon – the causes and effects of their precipitous decline, and the prospects for their return to a transformative abundance.  Larry will focus on stories instead of polemics, and Larry will strive to keep those stories as riveting as any good fish tale. To wit: Larry: The Online Journal of Pacific Salmon Recovery was so named  in honor of Lonesome Larry–not the erstwhile Idaho Senator with an infamously wide stance, but an historic sockeye salmon whose species he tried to help flush down the toilet bowl of extinction.

Back in 1992, “Larry” was the lone male sockeye salmon that returned to Redfish Lake, high in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. Biologists quickly determined that Larry was likely to be the last of his kind. In the 6 years following Larry’s demise, limping individual sockeye returns confirmed the sense that these iconic fish would join the menagerie of interesting creatures consigned to eternal oblivion.

But a funny thing happened on the way to extinction: Larry’s cousins refused to go.

Beginning in 1999, fish hatcheries in Oregon and Idaho began a desperate campaign to raise Redfish Lake sockeye. But sockeye returns continued to read like the box score from some epic, extra-innings baseball game between two teams that couldn’t score a run.

In 2006, after only three sockeye returned to Redfish Lake, a scientific panel nicknamed the “God Squad” recommended pulling the plug on the captive breeding program. The science panel’s report essentially declared the rescue effort for Idaho sockeye was too little, too late, and too expensive.

But in 2005, a federal judge, James Redden, ordered more water dedicated to salmon in the Columbia and Snake Rivers. For a few months during each of the following summers, the system was managed to resemble a river. Water, and juvenile fish migrating to the ocean, actually moved downstream.

Turns out salmon liked the idea, and responded accordingly. Numbers on returns bounced upward. Like high schoolers who hear someone’s parents are away, the sockeye kept pouring into the mouth of the Redfish Lake. 650 fish in 2008. 833 in 2009. 1,355 in 2010. 1,118 in 2011.  Data gathered overwhelmingly suggested it was the flowing water, released from its internment behind the eight main stem dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, that powered the ray of light for endangered sockeye and other strains of Columbia River salmon.

Yet in the weeks and months that followed, not much of the good news about the rediscovered relationship between fish and water made its way into the press. On salmonrecovery.gov, a website maintained by federal agencies working on salmon recovery, the  credit goes only to “milestones in the use of captive broodstock technology” in the years 1999-2001 for saving Idaho sockeye.  Federal agencies responsible for salmon recovery kept insisting that a hatchery program jumpstarted in 1999, and whose negligible return on investment had secured it a death sentence by 2006, was solely responsible for the increase in sockeye returns that commenced in 2008.

But the latest science affirms that dedicated flows of water for salmon are also a good thing–and that more water would be more of a good thing. Since 2005, steelhead, sockeye and chinook salmon have benefitted tremendously from mandated water releases from the eight dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. So what gives? Why can’t federal agencies give credit where credit is due? What undue influences might convince these same agencies to steer clear of the numbers that prove salmon need water?  It seems there’s something tawdry going on in the bathroom where fish politics in the Pacific Northwest take place. The doors need to come off the toilet stalls.

The ecological lessons Lonesome Larry and his progeny offer are easy. The political lessons are a little bit tougher.  Science lessons first: fish need water. No matter how finely-honed the hatchery program or hallowed the habitat, it’s the quality and quantity of the water from headwaters to tidewater to the sea that matter most. All of it, including the majority portions stagnating behind dams, make up freshwater habitat. The ocean matters, but as Mark Twain said of the weather, everyone talks about the ocean, but nobody does anything about it. Because they can’t: what happens out there in the Pacific is largely beyond human control. But the river is the nursery, and the migratory corridor for salmon at the beginning and end of their lives. Furthermore, the unique conditions of each of these specific watersheds bestows the collective, riotous diversity that has enabled salmon to colonize and transform nearly every freshet and backwater from deep alpine lakes to shallow desert streams. And, for better or worse, the fate of the river these days is now largely controlled by us. And this conflicted, contradictory, complex, expectant “us” that deserves at least as much scrutiny as we’ve applied to salmon.

Given the good river, the fish will do their part. But these days, it takes the good care of people to restore and maintain a healthy river. Larry’s role in this matter is to provide solid, accurate information, the stuff of which good decisions in an enlightened democratic community are made. But getting at the truth often requires taking a stand. Having an opinion.  The staff at Larry believes objective understanding should inspire activist engagement–in the same way a doctor ought to advocate for the health of his patients or an audiophile should protest the reunion of the Bare Naked Ladies.

Idaho salmon still face a long road to recovery. In the meantime, there is cause for cautious optimism in salmon nation: Larry’s children aren’t as lonesome as Larry once was. If you care about salmon, you shouldn’t be either. Larry is dedicated to you.

Larry: swimming upstream to a new web address

cropped-sockeye.jpgBeginning June 1st, Larry will be hosted at a new web address: www.golarry.org. While we here at Larry are trying to get their IT together, we would direct you to the excellent series on the utility industry being written by David Roberts over at grist.org. Mr.  Roberts is Grist’s energy writer, and he has bravely dedicated himself to the eye-ball drying subject of how utilities make money–and lots of it. The business model, as Roberts ably points out, is a century old, and is spectacularly ill-equipped to adapt to 21st century efficiency technologies, as well as 21st century mandates to cut greenhouse emissions.

Might Roberts delve into the role the Bonneville Power Administration plays in maintaining this unfortunate status quo? After all, the M.O. of the BPA, an agency invented during the Depression to cheaply electrify the rural West, is to keep expanding its customer base and the number of kilowatt hours sold as if it were still 1936. As Roberts ably points out in his series, the insistence on this century-old business practice is most definitely part of the problem.

For Bonneville, the old way keeps them gambling on a steady or increasing supply of hydropower in an era of declining snowpack. As the Enron-caused debacle of 2001 demonstrated, it also keeps BPA gambling on future energy prices.  All of this occurs with rate-payer and tax-payer (your) money.

In other news, tomorrow is the deadline for submitting comments to the EPA over the proposed permits for the Pebble Mine. If allowed to proceed, Pebble would create a grave risk to one of the planet’s last remaining sancutaries for wild salmon, Bristol Bay. You can submit your comments at:Submit online at: www.regulations.gov.  Specify Docket #EPA-HQ-ORD-2013-0189.

Bass-o-matic: Bassmaster gives Columbia Basin the nod for two of nation’s top 100 bassholes

The Columbia is currently as effective at passing salmon as Dan Akroyd's infamous blender was at processing bass

The Columbia is currently as effective at passing salmon as Dan Akroyd’s infamous blender was at rendering bass into a tasty beverage.

Put the Columbia and Snake Rivers on the short-list to host the Bassmaster Classic in a year coming soon. The Bass Angler Sportsmen’s Society, (B.A.S.S.) the  Alabama-based, ESPN-owned entity that sponsors the annual Superbowl of bass tournaments, has named the Columbia River and one of its formerly free-running, cold-water tributaries as two of the top bass holes in the country. The Columbia came in at number 21. Dvorshak Reservoir, the river formerly known as the North Fork Clearwater, was 26th.

Small-mouth bass are an invasive, non-native species in the Columbia Basin, one of several that have thrived as the 427 dams on the Columbia and its tributaries have transformed what was once some of the world’s best salmon habitat into a playground for happy slackwater fishermen–and hungry bass.

Bass eat juvenile salmon, though not as voraciously as northern pikeminnow, whose diet consists almost exclusively of young out-migrating salmon.

Though other western lakes and reservoirs made the top 100 list as destinations to ply for bass, the Columbia is the only river system nationwide that was included for its entire 450-mile length as harboring superlative bass-nurturing qualities.

The recognition for bass excellence comes in the midst of a failed 30-year, $10 billion effort to restore salmon to the Columbia Basin. Though federal agencies claim some progress has been made in this effort, salmon returns thus far in 2013 are running at about half the already dismal ten-year average.


The Five Greatest Myths about Freight Transportation on the lower Snake River

First installment: Want to save  energy? Shut down commercial barges on the lower Snake.

by Lin Laughy

Those who benefit most from government subsidies for commercial navigation on the lower Snake River— the ports, industry associations and their members, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers —have plied the public for years with untrue claims that barging is more economical, more fuel efficient, and less polluting than shipping freight by truck or rail. Barging supporters also make exaggerated claims that barging on the lower Snake River preserves highways and plays a critical role in the regional economy. The beneficiaries of barging subsidies continue to make these claims, often ignoring clear evidence to the contrary. In doing so, they are cookin’ the books and blowin’ smoke, and taxpayers are footing the bill. Misinformation presented with the intent to deceive is called a lie. If a lie is told repeatedly, it can become a myth. Lies and myths can enable a hoax.Here are the 5 greatest myths about freight transport on the lower Snake River:

• Barge transport is the most fuel-efficient means of transporting cargo.

• Barging keeps trucks off our highways saving millions of dollars each year.

• Barge transport on the lower Snake is friendly to the environment.

• Barging is the cheapest way to move freight.

• Barging on the lower Snake is a vital part of the regional economy.

Northwest barging supporters consider this graph industry gospel:

Miles per gallon per one ton of cargo

It appears on port and association websites, in grant applications, and is constantly referenced for print media. Those who use this graph to represent energy savings of barge transport on the lower Snake River are either misinformed or intentionally misleading their audience.

Myth 1: Barge transport is the most fuel-efficient means of transporting cargo.

• The ton-miles per gallon (tm/g) information in the above graph is extracted from a study by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) done for the National Waterways Foundation, whose officers and trustees are largely part of the barging industry. The graph uses data from 2001-2005, which TTI has since updated through 2009 and published as a final report. TTI’s more complete and current data set reveals a significant decrease in the claimed advantage of barge transport over rail (616 tm/g for barge, 478 tm/gfor rail).

• A number of research reviews have found the TTI study flawed and its results misleading or of limited applicability. For example, the TTI study failed to address circuity, i.e., the more circuitous route rivers often run compared to roads and rail. Typical river circuity is 1.3 times rail or truck. When a correction in the TTI data is made for circuity, the tm/g become 474 for barge and 478 for rail. For a second example, the data in the TTI graph represent national averages. Net tm/g increase significantly as the number of barges in a tow increases. Tows on the Mississippi often range from 15 to 50 barges,while tows on the lower Snake contain only 1-4 barges.

• Most of the freight transport in the lower Snake River region is neither barge nor rail, but rather a combination: truck-barge or truck-rail. An accurate comparison of modal fuel efficiency can only be made if the modes of transport travel the same distance from origin to destination and if no intermodal transports are involved. In a seminal article on freight transport fuel efficiency, Baumel notes that “net-ton-miles/gallon, when used alone, is frequently an incomplete and misleading measure for modal fuel efficiency comparisons. It is an accurate measure of comparative fuel efficiency only if the comparative mode shipments are from the same origin to the same destination, the same distance from the origin tothe destination, and there are no intermodal movements in each shipment.”

• Using regional energy coefficients rather than national averages and BTUs as a measure of energy, Casavant and Ball report that truck/rail is 24% more fuel efficient than truck/barge when analyzing the transport of wheat in eastern Washington. Barge transport required 368 BTUs/ton-mile, with rail using278. Grain is by far the most shipped commodity on the lower Snake, comprising 70% of all freightpassing Lower Granite dam in 2011. Casasavant and Ball concluded the closure of commercial river navigation on the lower Snake River would save 12.1 billion BTUs of energy use each year.


Sources:  Texas Transportation Institute, “A Modal Comparison of Domestic Freight Transportation Effects on the GeneralPublic: 2001-2009,” February, 2012

Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, “Myth: Barges Are the Most Fuel Efficient Mode of Transportation for AgricultureCommodities,” 2002  Nicollet island Coalition, “Big Price, Little Benefit,” February, 2010

Baumel, Phillip C., “Measuring Bulk Product Transportation Fuel Efficiency,” Journal of Transportation ResearchForum, Spring, 2011

Ball, Trent and Casavant, Ken, “Impacts of a Snake River Drawdown on Energy and Emissions Based on Regional

Energy Coefficients, University of Washington Dept. of Civil Engineering and Washington State University Departmentof Agricultural Economics, 2001

Military Intelligence given a bad name at USACE Walla Walla District

Officials from USACE Walla Walla District look past a chance to continue with a job well done.

Officials from USACE Walla Walla District look past a chance to continue with a job well done.

Fish Counting Gets Weird

Rod Sando is a retired state Fish and Game Agency  Administrator. His thirty year career was spent serving the states of Minnesota, Idaho and Oregon. As this is Larry’s first guest opinion piece, we thought about issuing the standard disclaimers about the opinions expressed being solely the author’s. But after reading it, we pretty much agree with everything Mr. Sando is saying here.

The US Army Corps of Engineers seems to be lending new life to the old joke about military intelligence being an oxymoron. For many years the Corps has contracted to count fish at all of the major dams on the main stem of the Columbia and Snake Rivers.  This had been done using the services of a state agency, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, for twenty eight years.

In 2013, the contract was awarded to a private contractor–even though the performance of the Agency had been more than satisfactory and reliable. This is important. The information gathered at the dams is an vital component of the data needed to manage the salmon runs found in the river.

Regional fisheries managers objected to this change. WDFW challenged the decision to no avail. The Corps is notorious for defending decisions once they are done no matter how faulty they are. This case is no exception. Except that it should be: A basic tenet of an agreement between state, tribal and federal fisheries agencies that emerged out of the last epic round of court battles was that each of these parties would continue to collaborate with one another as they plot the way forward. Unilaterally deciding to privatize a key component of the salmon data base doesn’t count as collaboration. Or even decent adult-to-adult communication.

Agencies outside the Corps raised objections based on the desire to continue to have access to high quality data. The uncertainty of a new contractor raised the specter of risk to the data base.  The fish only cross the dams once.  Errors are not easily corrected. Fisheries managers rightly saw it as an unnecessary risk to the reliability of this critical source of information.

The Corps’ rationale for pulling the rug out from under the WDFW stems from a rule that encourages contract awards to small businesses–if a competing small business can do the job just as well for a smaller price. This is where the Corps decision-making really goes awry.  WDFW did the fish-counting deed for $2 million per year, and according to reviews, did it well. The fish were counted accurately and the project stayed within its budget.

So get this: the new contract for fish counting was steered to a private consulting firm, Normandeau and Associates, for $3.2 million. This is a thirty three percent increase in costs–$ 1.2 million.  The new contractor has never done this work before, and in spite of established cooperative procedures, consultation with regional fish managers has not been done. In other words, even though the deliverables for the new contract are the same as the previous contract, the additional cost of over $1 million did not raise the eyebrows of anyone at the Corps. Apparently this was approved with full knowledge that it would provide the same information at a much higher cost.  A larger contract cost with no additional or new information being provided: this is not what the the federal government intended when it encouraged agencies to support small businesses.  It looks like the Corps was hell bent on doing this no matter what the fish managers had to say.
Meanwhile, the framework for cooperation between fisheries management agencies rests on shaky ground. The salmon plan federal agencies came up with for the Columbia Basin was declared illegal for a third time in 2011. It must be re-written and submitted to the court by January of 2014. That’s just eight months away. Further surprises from the Corps, one of the key federal players in any new and improved salmon plan, makes the prospects for success all the more unlikely.
Are the lights on at the Corps in Walla Walla?  Alienating the fisheries management cooperators seems foolish. And it feeds public cynicism. Based on the Corps example in this matter, citizens will be justified in the belief that government can’t get it right while taxpayers lose again.

Meanwhile,  a million dollar cost overrun is nothing to worry about at the USCOE.

Weekend Drudges thwart Snake River Dredges?

According to Lin Laughy, this weekend is the right time to help free the lower Snake River from the confines of four federal dams on its lower 140 mile reach. The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)  has written its draft plan for managing sediment in the Snake. Mr. Laughy and a grassroots band of citizen activists  have stirred controversy by pointing out potential flaws, oversights, and inaccuracies in the Corps’ draft dredging plan. Mr. Laughy points to the March 26th deadline for public comments on the Corps plan. “Here’s a short weekend project for you that can help end the ridiculous taxpayer subsidies for barge transport on the lower Snake, challenge the continued existence of the Port of Lewiston’s marine operations and on-going recruitment of megaload traffic for Highway 12, and strike a blow for salmon and steelhead recovery in the Snake, Salmon, and Clearwater Rivers. Aren’t these three worth 15 minutes of your weekend?” says Laughy.

You can bet the Corps is taking Mr. Laughy seriously. Imperial Oil, the Canadian subsidiary of ExxonMobil, did not–and paid a hefty price: about $2 billion to be exact. Imperial announced plans in 2010 to move huge pieces of mining and refining equipment up the Columbia and Snake Rivers on barges to Lewiston Idaho. The equipment was then slated to be moved by truck, over U.S. Highway 12, along the Clearwater an Lochsa Rivers, which bisects the largest roadless area in the lower 48 states.  Mr. Laughy and his wife, Karen Hendricksen, led the fight against Imperial. The result was a stunning defeat for Imperial Oil. The company announced its plans to abandon its hopes for highway 12 last year, a move industry insiders say bumped the cost of Imperial’s Kearl project from $1o billion to $12 billion. The effort also prompted other groups to join the fight. Idaho Rivers United recently won a lawsuit against the Forest Service for abdicating its rule-making powers to regulate commercial traffic on highways running through its forests.

Since then, Mr. Laughy has turned his attention to scrutinizing the lavish subsidy barge operators enjoy. His study of the economics of lower Snake River navigation conclude that each barge that travels the Snake is underwritten by taxpayers by $13,000. If the cost of the Corps’ sediment management plan study–a 12-year, $16 million project–is incorporated into that figure, tax-payers are on the hook for $18,000 per barge. Neither the Corps nor the Port of Lewiston has challenged Mr. Laughy’s analysis.

But tax-payer subsidies are just part of a deeper problem. The Corps sediment analysis is fatally flawed, says Mr. Laughy.

approaching Impassable Canyon on the Middle Fork of the Salmon shouldn't be impossible for salmon.

approaching Impassable Canyon on the Middle Fork of the Salmon shouldn’t be impossible for salmon.

“The sediment management issue, with its totally inadequate EIS and the Corps’ refusal to provide any cost-benefit analysis, provides a new opportunity to open public discussion about the entire lower Snake River project — dams, locks, levees, barge freight transport, hydropower, and more,” says Mr. Laughy.  A number of new variables make this opportunity unique — a serious decline in freight transport by barge, new unit trains on the Palouse, an explosion of wind energy, an unsustainable and deteriorating inland waterway infrastructure, dramatic cuts in federal spending. It’s time to put some serious cracks in the concrete.”

The deadline for comments on the Corps dredging plan is 5:00 pm Tuesday, March 26th. Comments should be sent topsmp@usace.army.mil The full text of the Corps’ plan can be found by clicking on the phrase draft plan link at the top of this story.

Science Panel to Northwest Power and Conservation Council: Your Salmon Plan Isn’t Working

This morning, leaders of an influential science advisory panel addressed the eight-member Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NPCC). Their message: salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin as currently conceived won’t work.   The Chair of the Independent Science Advisory Board (ISAB) Rich Alldredge, and Vice-Chair, Chris Wood, said the current plan, with its strict focus on habitat and hatchery production, will not meet biological goals set forth by the Council, and suggested the Council’s program needs to be revamped. An excerpt from the ISAB’s conclusions, posted on the NPCC website: (click on the link for the full ISAB report)

“A primary conclusion of this review is that continuing to implement the Program on its existing trajectory is highly uncertain to achieve the Council’s biological objectives for the Basin. The ISAB suggests a revised focus on sustainability with strategies to protect diversity and resilience, and to build adaptability.The ISAB is concerned that artificial propagation is a risky foundation for restoration, and that adaptive management, long considered an integral component of the Program, has not been conducted in the manner originally envisioned. A landscape perspective, drawing from broader community involvement, could help build consensus on Program objectives and strategies, or if this is not possible, it could at least help to create strategies that keep options open, consistent with a diversity of visions for the future. The ISAB recommends that Council decisions be guided by the precautionary principle and structured decision making, within an adaptive management cycle.”

The NPCC was established in 1980 with the passage of the Northwest Power Act. The four-state, eight member organization is tasked with balancing the needs of power production and salmon restoration in the Columbia Basin.

More to come on this story in Larry.

What’s Up, Doc?

Fish Story: Almost True tales of salmon Recovery from Rep. Doc Hastings

In a letter dated February 4th, 2013, U.S. Representative Richard “Doc” Hastings, Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, wrote to outgoing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, to express his concern over a “situation assessment” undertaken by NOAA, which would begin with nothing more than an informal interview process, leading, if all goes well, to an informal dialogue among stakeholders, aimed at improving long-term Columbia Basin salmon recovery planning.

Hastings concerns, as written, contain several misleading or otherwise inaccurate statements.

As part of Larry’s ongoing mission to interest the public in the public interest on matters concerning rivers and fish, we offer a by-the-numbers critique of Rep. Hastings letter.

Letter from Doc Hastings 1 of 2

Letter from Doc Hastings 2 of 2

“NOAA’s timing and rationale for launching yet another costly tax-payer funded planning exercise…”

Talk is cheap. Not saving salmon has proven to be expensive. The estimated cost of NOAA’s situation assessment: $250,000, a pittance in NOAA’s $5 billion budget. Annual outlay for Endangered Species Act related actions at NOAA is $1 billion. Estimates of the annual cost of the ineffective federal plan to recover threatened and endangered ESA salmon on the Columbia vary from $300 million to a billion dollars a year.

At any rate, Hastings’ concern over frivolous use of taxpayer funds does not apply to all recipients of government largesse. In July 2011, Hastings voted in favor of a $147 million U.S. subsidy for Brazilian cotton growers.

“several years data showing near record salmon runs:”

Hastings statement simply doesn’t hold water: Number, according to NOAA, of 13 ESA listed species of salmon in the Columbia Basin recovered: 0. Forecasts for 2013 predict even fewer salmon returning than in recent years. Most stocks, including the 13 Endangered Species Act- listed runs, are expected to return at levels lower than the already dismal ten-year average.

The official forecast for this year’s wild spring/summer chinook, for example, suggest that just 11,000 adults will likely survive to reach Idaho waters after passing eight dams on the Columbia and lower Snake Rivers. Last year’s wild run was 21,000; 2011 was 22,000; and 2010 was 26,000. Increase in numbers needed for this species to have it removed from the Endangered Species Act list: a minimum of 80,000 wild chinook returning for eight consecutive years.

“NOAA should be more clearly explaining what is necessary to remove Columbia and Snake Basin salmon from the Endangered Species Act list.”

It’s not that NOAA hasn’t tried: In August of 2011, NOAA posted a status review of listed species of Snake River salmon, which stated in a summary of their scientists’ findings on spring/ summer chinook salmon, “the species is not viable.” Five days after this status review was posted, it was pulled from NOAA’s website without explanation. Currently there are no Columbia/Snake River status reviews of salmon populations available on the agency’s website. In August 2010, L.A. Times writer Tom Hamburger reported federal salmon scientists in the Pacific Northwest were pressured to mimimize the effects of dams on salmon.

“In a 2011 report to Congress, NOAA itself characterized runs of six of seven ESA-listed salmon populations as either ‘stable’ or ‘increasing.”

Thirteen, not six, Columbia/Snake River salmon populations are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Estimated annual number of salmon returning to the Columbia River Basin, prior to European contact: 10 to 50 million. A recovery target identified by regional planners in the early 1980’s would have increased salmon returns from what was back then a 2.5 million fish average yearly return to 5 million fish annually. Average since 2001: 1.4 million. Some salmon populations, as Hastings notes, are on the increase. But the bounce is due to a court-ordered release of water in the rivers in question. Hastings has introduced H.R. 6247, “Saving Our Dams and New Hydropower Development and Jobs Act of 2012.” A provision in the bill would give states the authority to override the federal court order to release water for salmon.

“… I am concerned that this NOAA-led assessment could interfere with or impose new requirements on federally-approved and currently ongoing local salmon recovery plans…”

“Federally approved” salmon recovery plans were declared illegal for the third time in a decade by federal district court in Portland, Oregon on August 2nd, 2011. Thus the plan is not federally approved.

“…state and tribal hatchery programs that are contributing positively to record and/or near record salmon returns.”

Hastings wrongly credits hatcheries for contributing positively to salmon recovery. At least 85 papers published since 1995 raise serious doubts about any purported benefit hatchery fish have on wild salmon. Fisheries biologists at Oregon State University and University of California at Santa Cruz have recently published studies showing hatchery-wild fish interbreeding which, when compared to wild breeding pairs, significantly reduces odds of their offspring’s survival.

“Further, it could delay or undermine Congressionally-directed independent scientific review…”

Hastings seems again to allude here to H.R. 6247, his “Save Our Dams” bill. The bill has not cleared the House, much less the Senate, where it has little to no chance of passing. In the meantime, Congress has directed no such scientific review.

“Crafted with the support of three Northwest states…”

Hastings here refers to the Columbia Basin Fish Accords, signed in April 2008, which will dole out nearly $l billion in future federal tax-and regional utility rate-payer money to states and tribes in exchange for these parties’ acquiescence to a federal salmon plan that was declared illegal in August 2011. The amounts paid: Shoshone-Bannock Tribes : $61 million. Confederated Tribes of the Yakima: $330 million. Colville Tribes: $200 million. Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla: $150 million. Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs: $90 million. Idaho: $60 million. State of Washington: $45 million. Montana: $15.5 million. The Columbia Intertribal Fish Commission: $90 million. The money will be used for hatchery operations and habitat restoration work in tributaries of the Columbia and Snake, and in the estuary of the Columbia. In exchange for the funding, states and tribes promise to support and promote whatever federal agencies construe as salmon recovery. The agreement also takes Snake River dam removal off the table until at least 2018.

Beyond the problematic quelling of dissent, critics have pointed out that habitat and hatchery measures do not directly address the damage to salmon runs caused by federal dam projects in the mainstem Columbia and Snake Rivers.

“Fodder for new costly and unproductive litigation”

The Bonneville Power Administration, the agency in charge of marketing and selling power from the region’s dams, has already provided this fodder on at least two fronts. As has often been the case in the era of cheap hydropower in the Pacific Northwest, the region is sitting on an extravagant surplus of electricity. BPA’s method of dealing with this surplus, a policy known as “environmental redispatch,” gives priority to hydropower over the 5,000 megawatts of wind energy installed in the Columbia Basin over the past decade. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled in December of 2012 that disconnecting wind producers as currently practiced is illegal. BPA has also directed the region’s salmon recovery effort, which has also been declared illegal for the third time in a decade. BPA, along with NOAA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, tout the program as the most expensive, and therefore most extensive endangered species recovery effort

in the world. But record costs aren’t a valid yardstick for success. The program has yet to recover any populations of salmon.

“…prompt cooperation is appreciated.”

Hastings was in a less cooperative mood himself back in 2010. Emboldened by his newly-appointed position as House Natural Resource Committee Chair, Hastings tried scuttle the removal of Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in his home state. The dam, now gone, was owned by Pacific Power.

Rep. Hastings, an avowedly pro-business, anti-regulatory conservative, was working from his powerful government position in order to interfere with the business decision of a private corporation, an irony that so far has gone under-appreciated.