News from the Front #5: 

Dam Removal and the Clean Water Act:  More Bogus Computer Modeling for Ecosystem Restoration

    "In more honest times, scientists used observations to test the accuracy of models. Today, models are used to discredit observations."

                                                                                                                                           Dr. Malcolm Ross (

The National Wildlife Federation, Washington Wildlife Federation, Idaho Wildlife Federation, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Sierra Club, American Rivers, and Idaho Rivers United have sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for violations of the Clean Water Act.  They allege that the Lower Snake River dams make the water warmer and full of dissolved gas, violating water quality standards issued by the State of Washington pursuant to the Clean Water Act.  

These standards, like many of the standards now emanating from environmentalist-dominated agencies, cannot possibly be achieved.  The Snake River was in violation of the standards before the dams were ever built.  But it seems the point is not to actually achieve compliance with the standards, but to hold them up as proof of misconduct. As one plaintiff testified at his deposition, “the issue is the violation, not necessarily how the violation occurred”. 

The centerpiece of plaintiffs' case against the dams is testimony from David Wegner, the principal "scientist" behind massive water releases at Glen Canyon Dam.  Astute readers may recall that the highly-photogenic releases were heralded on national television as restoring the Grand Canyon ecosystem, and quietly recognized as pointless six months later when the purportedly beneficial effects disappeared.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hired Mr. Wegner to provide "peer review" of a computer model assembled by its employee John Yearsley.  Yearsley's model predicts that removing the four lower Snake River Dams would reduce late summer water temperatures.  Having reviewed the model for EPA, Mr. Wegner then turned around and wrote testimony based on the model for the environmentalists, conduct arguably in violation of EPA's conflict-of-interest standards. 

I first encountered Mr. Yearley on September 17, 1999, at a meeting convened by EPA to provide an update on peer review of his computer model.   Mr. Yearsley was put up a slide on the screen containing excerpts from a legal decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in which the court opined that legal challenges to the scientific basis of EPA's modeling were "usually futile".  I could only interpret Mr. Yearsley's slide as a warning to the audience, many of whom did not agree with the conclusions of the model, that their opposition was pointless.  It was both impressive and chilling to see that the judiciary's abdication of its duty to assess agency decisions had permeated down to the "scientists", who apparently feel privileged to take whatever "scientific" positions they wish without fear of accountability.

It got worse.  Mr. Yearsley then put up some slides, excerpts from "scientific" journals, that derided the doctrine that computer models of environmental phenomena should be calibrated to actual data, and that the predications of the model should then be validated against other, independent data, as a check on the validity of the model.  Mr. Yearsley thought that what was important, rather than "calibration" and "validation", was "parameter estimation" and "acceptance".  In short, one need not (and as a matter of law could not) question the design of the model, and need not test it against reality.   All that was really important was "acceptance", which I took to be some sort of political phenomenon.

It soon became apparent why Mr. Yearsley had taken this position, because he had not even bothered to test the EPA model's predictions against historical, pre-dam measurements of temperature, and apparently did not feel it was important to do so.  The Corps of Engineers has its own model, which was at least calibrated with pre-dam measures of temperature, and it comes to precisely the opposite conclusion as the EPA model.  Both models, however, are sufficiently imprecise that the predicted temperature changes are well within the statistical error in the models.  The bottom line is that peak temperatures in the Snake River are almost certainly lower than before the dams were built, and beyond that it is difficult to tell.

But Mr. Yearsley's innovations did not stop there.  It then developed that he had applied a complex statistical technique known as "Kalman Filtering", which was originally developed to combine radio measurements of a rocket's location with formulas for rocket propulsion to obtain the most accurate prediction of where the rocket really is.  Mr. Yearsley applied it to generate predicted temperatures by adjusting actual measurements with a model (based on solar absorption rates, evaporation rates, and so forth) for reservoir temperature changes.  After I asked a few questions, it became apparent that the assumptions for Kalman Filtering did not really apply in this context, and that Mr. Yearsley arbitrarily adjusted the evaporation rate in the model downward, tending to make things appear warmer.  None of the peer reviewers had figured this out, though they had had the wit to observe that EPA hadn't released enough information for any sort of meaningful peer review.

I had the temerity to suggest to Mr. Yearsley's boss that EPA ought to release enough information so that the peer reviewers could figure out what Yearsley had done.  She haughtily replied that the peer review process was "finished", and that EPA had "made up its mind" that the dams were the problem. 

All these facts will never probably make it before the Court, but yesterday I filed papers pointing out that EPA's model is contrary to the historical data; that the Corps' model comes to the exact opposite result; and that, above all, there is no way the Corps can run the dams to make the Snake River any cooler.  (The Corps could put less dissolved gas in the water by spilling less water, but the plaintiffs don't want this, because they believe that more spill is better for fish survival.)  As several plaintiffs frankly acknowledged in their depositions, the thing they really want to achieve through their Clean Water Act lawsuit is dam removal. 

The members of Congress who voted for the Clean Water Act back in 1972 could never have dreamed that environmentalists would someday file lawsuits to dismantle dams as sources of "pollution".  Congress knew that dams could affect water quality, and included a provision in the Clean Water Act directing EPA to pursue a voluntary, informational approach for water quality “changes caused by the construction of dams”.  33 U.S.C.  1314(f)(2)(F).  Enforcement procedures were reserved for entities that were "discharging a pollutant".  Dams don't discharge pollutants, and have never been required to get discharge permits. 

The Corps of Engineers has the misfortune to be represented by the United States Justice Department, which has its own conflict of interest, as it represents EPA as well the Corps.  When push comes to shove, it is more important for the Justice Department to make EPA happy than the Corps, so the Justice Department isn't citing  1314(f)(2)(F) in its papers to the Court, and isn't telling the Court that dams don't "discharge pollutants".  Indeed, Justice's 35-page legal memorandum  doesn't even tell the Court about the Corps' computer model and the historical data (Justice did file an affidavit prepared by the Corps with that information buried in it).   Instead, the Justice Department is raising a large number of procedural arguments in its papers.   

With any luck at all, the Judge will read more than Justice's memorandum, see through the environmentalist claims, and dismiss the lawsuit.  If you want to know more, you can read CRA's legal memorandum.  

James Buchal, October 13, 1999

gbstripe.gif (1558 bytes)

Return to Other Salmon Materials

Return to