Senator Craig and the Fish Passage Center

January 20th, 2006

Posted by: admin

I’ve written a good bit on salmon issues in the Columbia and Snake River systems (see Prometheus posts 1 and 2, and nosenada posts). I last left the issue with news of Senator Larry Craig’s (R-ID) annoyance at a broker of information in the system.

Litigation has been running for years over the Federal government’s obligations to protect various ocean-bound species of salmon and their inevitable conflict with the 11 major dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. In this case, the federal government means the Army Corps (who run the dams), the Bonneville Power Administration (who oversee the power ops), and NOAA-Fisheries (who are supposed to be watching out for the salmon under the ESA). NOAA-Fisheries has negotiated compromise solutions with BPA and the Corps on protecting both salmon and power issues. Environmentalists have sued, claiming that under the ESA, NOAA-Fisheries is only supposed to be protecting the salmon without taking economic considerations in account.

The federal interests in this case are simply an extension of one side of the interest triangle on Columbia/Snake salmon. The three major stakeholders are power consumers, farmers and fish lovers. The first category is represented by BPA because BPA sells the power and hears about it when that power gets expensive. Power consumers are both residential users and their co-ops, as well as major industries, such as Alcoa. Farmers’ interests are obvious. Fish lovers include the various tribes of the region with treaty rights, sport fishermen and commercial catch operators. The basic issue is that fish lovers want BPA to spill water over the tops of the dams in the summer to help salmon smolts safely get out to sea. But that spilt water is water BPA cannot use for power generation and thus represents lost revenue and, by extension, higher rates for consumers.

(Worth noting, we are talking about summer power and the demand then is not from the Pacific Northwest but from out-of-market California for air conditioning. In other words, BPA doesn’t actually lose money by spilling water in the summer, rather it loses revenue it could gain by selling power to another market.)

To this point, the presiding judge on the case, James Redden of the Federal District Court in Portland, OR, has usually sided with the plaintiffs and found the government’s salmon recovery plans inadequate. The latest ruling came in October, with Redden stating in his decision:

I found NOAA’s opinion that DAM operations would not jeopardize the continued existence of listed salmon species was arbitrary and capricious because it was based on a flawed framework of analysis that improperly segregated elements of the proposed action NOAA deemed to be nondiscretionary…. In addition, I found NOAA’s analysis of the effects of the proposed action on critical habitat was arbitrary and capricious, and its analysis of the likelihood of recovery as well as survival of the listed species was inadequate.

The decision continues in even more scathing language on pages 3 and 4. This is entirely consistent with Redden’s many decisions throughout the history of this issue and his exasperation at the federal agencies comes through clearly.

Redden’s series of rulings has led Senator Craig to (predictably?) call Redden an “activist judge.” This is an extension of Senator Craig’s political decision on choosing up sides of the interest triangle. In this case he avoided the tack taken by every other Senator in the region — all of whom have avoided publicly favoring one side — and chose to side with power interests over sporting interests (who also have a strong Republican base).

Beside the name calling, Senator Craig’s decision to favor one side has led to finding a way to influence the outcome of the policy decisions in the system more directly. He has done so by going after the data used by the plaintiffs to inform the Redden decisions. Specifically, Senator Craig targeted the BPA-funded Fish Passage Center (FPC), which aggregates fish count data and provides analyses of the health of the salmon stocks.

This is language that appears on pages 178 and 179 of S. Rep. 109-84 in the Energy and Water Appropriations bill (PL 109-103) :

The Committee is concerned about the increasing cost of salmon recovery efforts in the Columbia River Basin, and about the potential adverse impact of those increased costs on customers of the Bonneville Power Administration. The Committee also is concerned about the quality and efficiency of some of the fish data collection efforts and analyses being performed. As a result, during fiscal year 2006, the Bonneville Power Administration may make no new obligations from the Bonneville Power Administration Fund in support of the Fish Passage Center. The Committee understands that there are universities in the Pacific Northwest that already collect fish data for the region and are well-positioned to take on the responsibilities now being performed by the Fish Passage Center, and that the universities can carry out those responsibilities at a savings to the region’s ratepayers that fund these programs.

This language does not square with Craig’s and his staff’s early statements on the FPC, in which they derided it as a political agency with an pro-fish agenda. This mirrored the public comments of a prominent stakeholder on the pro-energy, anti-spill side. Only after Craig was skewered by local press did the story change to one of efficiency and overlap.

Of course, no metric exists to test whether the FPC is an honest broker or an advocacy organization, but my reading of their work places them clearly on the side of honest broker. Editorials from throughout the Pacific Northwest written in response to Senator Craig’s actions seem to back me up. Senator Craig did not like the data coming back; data which supported the contention that federal agency plans to help salmon survival were not helping the salmon. So he found a way to kill the messenger.

There is something that clearly does not stand close scrutiny in the report language above. If the committee is concerned about the quality and efficiency of data collection, why is it decentralizing the collection and analysis, while “hoping” that PNW universities will take up the role? Furthermore, why is the committee de-funding the one organization that the federal agencies and other stakeholders in the system can turn to for on-demand aggregated information? Although individual scientists may do it as part of grant-supported research projects, the universities in the area have no charter or mandate to collect, analyze and provide this information on demand. The clear implication here is that some players in the system do not want the information available.

Senator Craig’s staff tried halfheartedly to justify the decision to de-fund the FPC based on the above reasoning, but their early comments very clearly pushed this as a political decision, rather than a prudent policy decision. The timing could not have been more clear, as Craig’s anger was palpable on the heels of a summer Redden decision that yet again found for the plaintiffs and against the agencies.

However, all the above said, somewhere in the Conference Committee (the process that reconciles the House and Senate bills and leads to final passage), somebody chose to temper Senator Craig’s language. The report language of the Energy and Water Appropriations bill as passed out of Conference (H.Rep. 109-275, pg. 174) reads a bit differently:

The Bonneville Power Administration
may make no new obligations in support of the Fish
Passage Center. The conferees call upon Bonneville Power Administration
and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council to ensure
that an orderly transfer of the Fish Passage Center functions
(warehouse of smolt monitoring data, routine data analysis and reporting
and coordination of the smolt monitoring program) occurs
within 120 days of enactment of this legislation. These functions
shall be transferred to other existing and capable entities in the region
in a manner that ensures seamless continuity of activities.

Clearly the committee was uncomfortable with cutting the FPC free and letting the data fall into the sea. Although this final language is not substantially different from the Senate language, the last sentence above is an important directive that seems to make this issue more about efficiency and overlap and less about simply killing the FPC for the sake of killing the FPC.

[Final note: if you're confused about all the Senate report this and House report that and PL 109-xxx's, the appropriations bills are all summarized here. The Public Law (PL) is the passed legislative language; the reports are the plain-English explanations by the Committees of their actions. The most relevant report is the Conference Report.]

One Response to “Senator Craig and the Fish Passage Center”

  1. tsanford Says:

    Though the Niners ma have been right in a very technical sense regarding Conference Committee language, all agencies tend to follow the guidlines of allocators to get their yearly allocations. So as a functional matter agencies always balance directives from the exec, leg. and judicial branches. It seems to me that teh decision was biased however in the presumption in the first paragraph that hydro projects are solely responsible for declines in the adadronoms fish. Judge Gould notes nowhere that the first government reports on declining runs came in the 1880’s well before contstruction of the dams. Even among “fish-lovers” there is widespread agreement that habitat, harvesting and hydro and oceanic conditions all play a role in the survival of the species. So there needs to be another angle to your triangle (which would of course change the geometry) that is the fish processing industry who have been harvesting beyond sustainability for more than a century, the farmers for a like amount of time have refused simple measures like fish wiers to keep spawners from getting caught in irrigation ditches, the logging companies and the affiliated industries that rely on their products who wreak evironmental havoc deystroying stream beds, and the big unknowable: to what extent do conditions in the ocean effect fish runs (that these conditions are certainly an impact of global warming, e.g. ocean acidification, makes caclulating all of interests very difficult indeed. It seems to me however that only hydro gets attacked for supposed decimation of the runs and only hydro is expected to clean everything up. You could breach every dam on the Columbia and Snake rivers and still could not be assured of salmon runs, not with international fishing treaties allowing massive hauls, not with ever spreading residential development in watersheds and not with mysteries of the fishy deep eluding our scientists.