News from the Front #17:

Media Misrepresent Benefits of Fish-Friendly Turbines

I opened this morning's Oregonian to find an article entitled "Bonneville's new 'fish friendly' turbine not quite so friendly".  The article claims that the new minimum-gap runner turbine at Bonneville "has been found to improve fish survival by just 2 percent to 3 percent".   This followed on the heels of unfavorable television coverage, such as Portland Channel 8's report last night that only "slightly more salmon may survive" (emphasis added) if sent past the new turbines.   This was the spin on a press conference held by the Corps at Bonneville Dam yesterday.  Many of us who follow closely the Corps' actions concerning the Federal Columbia River Power System wonder whether events such as these should be seen as a comedy of errors, or the more sinister string-pulling from Washington that has marred so many of the Corps' recent decisions. 

When I contacted the Corps to find out the details, I was told that the Corps released some 7200 fish, 2200 as controls, with 2500 through the new turbine and 2500 through an old turbine for comparison.  I was told that total survival for the 24 different test groups released into the turbines was as low as 90.8% in the conventional turbines and as low as 93.8% in the new turbines.  This, as I understand it, is the source of the media's 2-3% improvement. 

But the Corps has yet to produce final estimates of survival in the old and new turbines.  There were multiple test groups, including some groups released under turbine operations that did not comply with NMFS' efficiency criteria, so that it would be appropriate  to use only a subset of the total data.  Assumptions also need to be made about the distribution of arrival locations at the turbine.

If the results of such work comport with results from balloon tag tests in the Snake, total direct mortality through the old turbines will be roughly 5%.   If mortality through the new turbines were two-and-a-half percentage points lower, total mortality through the new turbines would be only 2.5%.  That, of course, is a 100% drop in mortality, which sounds very different from the 2-3% gain in survival reported in the media.  This interpretation of the data is corroborated by a nugget of information buried in the Corps' press release revealing that the injury rate in the new turbine was "one-half the injury rate of the traditional turbines", consistent with a 100% drop in mortality.

If the media representatives were not hopelessly biased and/or incompetent, they could have raised these sorts of questions at the press conference, and perhaps reported things more accurately.  But the incompetence and bias of the media is well-known to the Corps' public-relations professionals.  Thus the $64 question:  why did the Corps hold this press conference even before it had the results of the analysis in hand, under circumstances in which the media could only be expected to produce a grossly misleading characterization of the test results?  

Effective public relations work would present a cumulative analysis of cutting turbine mortality in half at the eight mainstem projects.  Conservative assumptions of 80% Fish Passage Efficiency and existing turbine mortality of 7.5% would produce an overall reduction in direct turbine mortality from 11.4% over eight dams to 5.8%.  More realistic assumptions, plus accounting for fish that avoid turbines through transportation, would produce much, much smaller estimates of total direct turbine mortality through eight projects.  Is it now politically-incorrect to reveal such tiny impacts from dams?  If the Corps won't provide information in a form such that reporters can write articles like "New turbines cut death rate in half", who will?


New Judicial Appointees for the Ninth Circuit Signal Continued Decline in the Rule of Law

The few citizens who follow the intricacies of Chinagate may recall the name of John Huang, who was involved in supplying the Democrats with at least $1 million in illegal campaign contributions in the 1996 election.  He was allowed to plead guilty to charges involving $7500 in the 1994 election with no jail time, a result William Safire's February 10, 2000 column aptly summarized:  "John Huang, having been given a walk and thus under no coercion to talk, will remember nothing about Clinton-Gore involvement."  This leniency reportedly violated federal sentencing guidelines, which would have required the imprisonment of Mr. Huang.

Now President Clinton has nominated the judge who approved the plea bargain, Richard A. Paez, for a lifetime appointment to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire is filibustering against the appointment, but according to an AP wire report, the Republican leadership, "squelching dissent in [the] ranks", is going to schedule a vote that is expected to lead to Senate approval of the nomination later this week.  Six Republican Senators, including Orrin Hatch, are expected to vote in favor of the nomination (along with all the Democrats), giving a 51-49 vote for the nominations. 

James Buchal, March 8, 2000

        gbstripe.gif (1558 bytes)

Return to Other Salmon Materials

Return to