Flow Theory and the Northwest Power Planning Council

Shortly after the pioneering but flawed works of Raymond, Sims & Ossiander, power interests went before Congress with a plan to allocate hydropower produced from the dams among themselves. Congressman Dingell, at the urging of environmentalists, declared that the bill would not go forward unless it contained measures to promote fish and wildlife protection in the Columbia River Basin.

Obviously, without some minimal level of flows in the river, no fish are going to survive. Minimum outflows were already in place for each of the projects on the Columbia and its tributaries. This was not enough for the fishery interests, which sought and obtained language creating a Regional Council charged with preparing a fish and wildlife program. And they succeeded in getting Congress to declare that the Council’s Fish and Wildlife Program should include measures to “provide flows of sufficient quality and quantity between [the dams] to improve production, migration and survival of [anadromous] fish . . ."90

Like proponents of the federal income tax, which began as less than 1% of high incomes, the flow proponents downplayed the significance of the provision. And just like no one ever thought that income tax rates would rise to 50% or higher, no one ever thought that flow augmentation would come to demand so much water. Over the years, the Congressional command to achieve flows of sufficient quantity and quality for salmon became an end in itself, rather than a means to improved salmon survival.

In 1982, the Northwest Power Planning Council recommended a “water budget” for salmon that would supplement spring flows with 1.2 million acre-feet of water, an amount later increased to 3.5 million acre-feet. An agricultural lobbyist once told me that one million acre-feet of water can grow enough wheat to feed the residents of the City of Portland for five years. The 1982 Council program was a significant amount of water to devote to salmon recovery, but it was only the beginning.

The Council explained that through “adaptive management”, the results of this experiment in providing flows would be monitored carefully. As one early member of the Council, Kai Lee of Washington, explained, the Council’s “[m]easures should make an observable difference. Natural populations of fish and wildlife fluctuate for reasons beyond human control or prediction. If an experimental probe is to have a discernible signal, it must have an impact sufficient to overcome the noise of natural variations.”91

No one ever demonstrated any impact on salmon survival from artificial increases in flows in the Columbia River Basin. By 1992, the Council’s program increased the water budget to about 8 million acre feet (a program denounced by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit as inadequate—see Chapter 9). The National Marine Fisheries Service, acting under the White House’s extraordinary interpretations of the Endangered Species Act, later increased the amount to 10-11 million acre feet (a program denounced by the United States District Court for the District of Oregon as inadequate—see Chapter 9), and later further increased it to 13-16 million acre-feet.92

If one followed the simplistic approach salmon advocates apply to transportation of juvenile salmon (it increased, but the salmon didn’t, so the program is a failure), the flow augmentation program has clearly been an enormous failure: these drastic increases in flow have produced no increases in salmon populations whatsoever. Flow theorists, however, adopt the common posture of government program advocates—the program has not yet been funded enough to really make a difference. Demands for still higher flows persist to this day, with lawsuits pending to force even higher flows.

As of 1996, there is such unquestioning allegiance to "flow targets" that the staff of the Northwest Power Planning Council proudly released a computer game (actually a spreadsheet program with gamelike graphics) to allow interested citizens in the Northwest an opportunity to see how manipulating reservoir levels throughout the Columbia River Basin could influence achievement of the flow targets. The program allows users to manipulate reservoir levels and flow targets and (under)estimates the resulting costs. But the program presents no quantification of benefits at all. For Council staff, manipulation of dam operations has become a game it itself, a game in which no one cares about whether, and to what extent, biological benefits are being achieved through the manipulation.

The Council’s Independent Science Group, discussing the concept of “adaptive management” generally, concluded that

“. . . adaptive management has since [1987] been used to justify a variety of actions on the premise that they may provide new information. We contend that adaptive management is intended as a much more rigorous scientific approach. The term should only be used in reference to explicit management experiments that include hypotheses, test conditions and a detailed experimental design. The concept of adaptive management should not be used as justification for every action about which the outcome is uncertain.”93

The ISG went so far as to suggest, correctly, that “[i]t is not clear that the Council or any other regional management entity is politically equipped to effectively utilize adaptive management”.94

Unfortunately, while the ISG could recognize science in the abstract, when it came to flow augmentation, the Group concluded that it would simply redefine “old” flow augmentation as “purely technological and unsubstantiated”, while “new” flow augmentation was obviously desirable as part of the “establishment of normative river conditions”.95 The National Research Council was more straightforward, concluding in 1995 that: “[t]he effectiveness of flow augmentation alternatives has not been demonstrated.”96

My clients funded a study focusing on how many endangered Snake River salmon you would get for the lost power production from Columbia River flow augmentation, and gave it to the National Marine Fisheries Service, for guidance as to whether flow augmentation constituted a "reasonable and prudent" measure under  7 of the Endangered Species Act. Put succinctly, NMFS wanted to try to help Idaho fish by moving more water from Canada and Montana through Washington. The cost was in excess of $10,000,000 per returning adult salmon. Nevertheless, NMFS recommended that the Corps and BPA do it, and the White House ordered them to do it.

We later heard that the critical decision was made in a Saturday meeting at the White House. The White House Office of Environmental Policy listened to the delegation from Northwest federal agencies. BPA and the Corps said that more flow would not help the salmon; the fishery agencies said it would. The White House knew that BPA would hide costs in its rates, so it didn't cost the White House anything to give the fishery agencies what they wanted.

The Clinton/Gore Administration has, in substance, forbidden the dam operators from questioning fishery managers about the biological benefits of their schemes. During meetings of the federal, state and tribal Implementation Team in 1996, agency officials from BPA and the Bureau of Reclamation who asked for an explanation of the biological benefits of flow decisions were repeatedly ruled out of order.

Most of the people I work with now think that flow augmentation demands are really just a tool used by the state and tribal harvest agencies to extract money from the dam operators. As more and more evidence mounts that flow augmentation accomplishes nothing, the harvest managers are now becoming willing to “trade” the costs of flow augmentation for new adventures in salmon mitigation. The Chairman of the Northwest Power Planning Council, John Etchart, has even asked power industry lobbyists whether they wouldn’t be willing to take out a dam or two in exchange for eliminating the flow augmentation tax on Bonneville.

90 Section 4(h)(6)(E)(ii) of the Northwest Power Act; see also 16 U.S.C.  839.

91 K. Lee & J. Lawrence, “Adaptive Management: Learning from the Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program”, 16 Envt’l Law 431, 445-46 (1986).

92 See NMFS, 1995 Biological Opinion on FCRPS Operations, Mar. 2, 1995, at 96 (comparing Endangered Species Act program requirements as applied to “the drought years of 1992-94”).

93 ISG, Return to the River xxii.

94 Id. at 46.

95 Id. at 266-67.

96 Upstream at 209 (Prepub. ed.).

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