The 1995 Spill Program

Dr. Fidler was sufficiently outraged by the proposal to set aside the 110% standard again in 1995 that he wrote to Bob Baumgartner of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, warning that “with anadromous fish populations in their present state, it is possible that by allowing dissolved gas levels in these rivers to rise above the U.S. E.P.A. guideline, some populations might be lost entirely.”30

Mr. Baumgartner reviewed the evidence for and against spill, and wrote a number of memoranda questioning the reasoning and data of the state and tribal spill advocates. This was the only time we ever saw a government employee fresh to the salmon problem take an unbiased look at it. He was promptly removed from his position of reviewing the spill waivers and “promoted” to a new position. We were later told that Oregon Governor Kitzhaber’s office had intervened to accomplish this. Perhaps chastened by these events, his new, junior replacement never put much effort into critical review of the claims of spill proponents.

On March 1, 1995, the Oregonian reported that as many as forty thousand juvenile salmon held in net pens below Willamette Falls on the Willamette River died as a result of total dissolved gas supersaturation.31 The net pens were eight feet deep, and the gas levels were under the newly-minted 120% standard when the salmon began dying. We hoped that the death of these salmon would serve as a wakeup call for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

As soon as he read the Oregonian article, Erick Johnson, the lawyer for the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative, sprang into action, asking that day "to inspect and obtain copies of all public records relating to any lethal or sublethal effects observed in juvenile spring chinook salmon on the lower Willamette River".32 I called him up to congratulate him on beating me to punch with a request for the documents. He was enthusiastic, hoping that the State would wake up and look at this evidence.

Unfortunately, as soon as the Willamette River incident occurred, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife also sprang into action, producing a report which declared, among other things, that the saturometers used to measure the total dissolved gas supersaturation at the net pen site were somehow in error because there was a "temperature effect" that could not be captured by the saturometers. Lapsing into pseudoscientific babbling, the report suggested that there was some sort of mysterious kinetic energy of the gas particles that had an adverse effect on the fish that could not be detected by gas supersaturation detection technology.

Dr. Larry Fidler laughed when he heard this claim. In a letter to the Oregon water quality regulators, Dr. Fidler acidly noted that the National Bureau of Standards and every other scientific organization involved in measuring the effects of gas supersaturation on aquatic life would not use saturometers if they were not capable of accounting for changes in temperature.

Undaunted, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife switched tactics. Now it claimed, through means it did not attempt to explain, that the net pens were riding several feet out of the water so that they were not really eight feet deep, but were perhaps only two or three feet deep. We contacted the Department's biologist in charge of running the net pens, who acknowledged that the pens were nearly entirely in the water. Unfortunately, citizens typically cannot subpoena witnesses to bring the truth into administrative proceedings like the proceedings the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality was holding on the spill waiver, so we could only assert what we had been told.

Ultimately, the deaths of the Willamette salmon served no purpose. Acting in reliance on the misinformation and distortions produced by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission again approved a waiver of the total dissolved gas limits. The staff prepared a report swallowing the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's fish story hook, line and sinker, saying the “fish in the [Willamette] net pens were likely restricted to depths of much less than eight feet”.33 They were a little harder on the federal agencies, characterizing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s review of the science supposed to support the waiver as “a remarkably limited evaluation of available literature”.34

After several weeks of steadily increasing spill, juvenile fall chinook salmon placed in net pens below Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River in Eastern Washington began to die from gas bubble disease. All the fish confined to a shallow one-meter-deep pen were found dead after only four days of exposure. Bruce Lovelin, Executive Director of the Columbia River Alliance, took the lead in publicizing the deaths in the net pens.

Once again the spill advocates sprang into action, declaring that these deaths were "irrelevant" and that conditions in the net pens had nothing to do with the real world conditions in the river. Northwest Power Planning Council members Ken Casavant and Mike Kreidler publicly accused Bruce Lovelin of “fear mongering” and “dishonesty” for daring to raise questions about spill, and Idaho environmentalists accused him of “fabricating” a claim that spill was harming salmon.35 Others proclaimed that the net pen deaths were "meaningless" because the fish confined to the net pens could not dive to avoid the effects of gas supersaturation.

State and tribal spill proponents claimed that juvenile salmon could sense the presence of excessive levels of total dissolved gas in the water and dive to avoid the adverse effects. One government scientist, amused and disgusted by the whole proceedings, declared "the idea that fish can sense and dive to avoid total dissolved gas supersaturation is silly. Human beings who get the bends suffer nitrogen narcosis and cannot tell themselves whether they are the victims of gas bubbles in the blood. It seems unlikely that tiny fish less than two inches long can do so." NMFS was later to conduct an exhaustive review of the "diving" theory to conclude that there was "no evidence that fish can 'sense' TDG supersaturated water and deliberately sound to compensate".36

The kernel of truth behind the state and tribal position is that the symptoms of gas bubble disease are avoided at greater depths because the pressure keeps the bubbles from forming. This fact set off a festival of misrepresentations about the depth distribution of juvenile salmon. Unfortunately for the salmon, “[m]ost studies of salmon migration in rivers and reservoirs have indicated a surface orientation during movement”.37 But the states and tribes ignore the evidence, instead pointing to measurements in the forebays of dams, where fish both (1) rest at deeper levels in holding patterns; and (2) are attracted deep below the surface by turbine currents.

After the net pen deaths, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers insisted on taking some measures to reduce dissolved gas concentrations below Ice Harbor Dam. They reduced upstream reservoir releases for flow augmentation, and also lowered reservoir levels above Ice Harbor Dam. Each step was opposed by all the fishery agencies, with NMFS, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Fish Passage Center leading the opposition.

The Corps refused, however, to reduce spill levels at projects upstream of Ice Harbor Dam. Here they assumed, erroneously, that only the gas levels immediately below Ice Harbor Dam were causing a problem. Because the amount of gas produced in the water below Ice Harbor did not depend very significantly on the gas level in the water coming into Ice Harbor, they thought that upstream spill did not matter. Later, analysis would reveal that fish died below Ice Harbor much faster if they had also been exposed to higher gas levels upstream.

As all this was going on, I noticed a startling fact. Although the number of juvenile salmon entering Lower Granite Dam was well above the 10 year average, the number of fish making it five dams downstream to McNary Dam was significantly below that average. I brought this up in a meeting of the Technical Management Team, charged to manage river operations on a week-to-week basis to optimize conditions for migrating salmon. They had no idea why it was happening. None of them had noticed. They promised to look into the matter and ultimately offered explanations which, except for one, did not make sense. The sensible one was that the Fish Passage Center's projections of fish expected at McNary were worthless to begin with.

I also pointed out that the PIT-tag technology permitted a nearly instantaneous means of assessing the effects of spill on salmon, for it was possible to track the progress of each individual salmon downstream, dam by dam, and compute the percentage of release groups that survived during the spill experiment. In May, I requested the National Marine Fisheries Service, in writing, to analyze this data, but they declined to do so.

My clients were willing to engage S. P. Cramer and Associates to conduct the PIT-tag analysis the government should have been doing. Cramer and his analysts found, consistent with the massive mortality in the net pens, that salmon mortality had increased sharply just as the mortality in the net pens began to show up.

The reaction of the states and tribes was typical. When the National Marine Fisheries Service later conducted analyses similar to those conducted by Cramer, Stephen Pettit of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Michelle DeHart of the Fish Passage Center wrote to NMFS to complain that “analyses by some consultants have forced the NMFS to begin analyzing their data in a way that is not supportable by the original study design”.38

This criticism is nonsense. Of course the analysis is not supported by the original study design. The data was originally gathered to provide survival estimates, not estimates of the effect of spill. But it is the very ideal of science to take data gathered and learn everything you can from it—whether or not anyone had the wit to think of each and every possible use of the data before they are collected. To promoters of the Great Salmon Hoax, like Pettit and DeHart, unapproved use of data is subversive.

In the meantime, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's staff had become concerned that notwithstanding the promises of the federal agencies and the state fishery agencies, even the excessive gas levels that they had authorized were being routinely exceeded. One Department staffer confided to me that he had attended a meeting with representatives of the Corps of Engineers and National Marine Fisheries Service and inquired about the fact that adult salmon had begun to show up at Lower Granite Dam with "headburns", a symptom that seems to correlate with spill in the dam system (and leads to increased prespawning mortality among the few remaining adults). He was shocked when the National Marine Fisheries Service person at the meeting denied that any such thing had occurred, leading the Corps of Engineers person to pull out a National Marines Fisheries Service report to the contrary. "It was at that moment I realized," he said, "that this program was based on ideology and not science."

30 Letter, L. Fidler to R. Baumgartner, Jan. 9, 1995, at 1.

31 B. Monroe, "Nitrogen kills Willamette salmon", The Oregonian, March 1, 1995, at A15.

32 Letter, R. Johnson to ODFW Custodian of Records, March 1, 1995.

33 Memo, L. Taylor to EQC, Mar. 15, 1995, at B-12.

34 Id. at B-3.

35 Quoted in Letter, M. Sanchotena to B. Lovelin, May 30, 1995, at 1.

36 1995 BO, at 108.

37 ISG, Return to the River 201.

38 Letter, M. DeHart to M. Schneider, Dec. 20, 1996, at 1; Letter, S. Pettit to M. Schneider [undated], at 1.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

This Web page was created using a Trial Version of HTML Transit 3.0.