Flow Theorists Take Over the National Marine Fisheries Service

In the early 1980s the National Marine Fisheries Service abandoned any further efforts to document a link between river flow and survival. But in the 1990s, with salmon listed as endangered, the Sims and Ossiander data enjoyed an unprecedented revival despite its fatal flaws.

Reviewing the efforts of the National Marine Fisheries Service to assist salmon through flow augmentation, Drs. Chapman and Giorgi complained that

“Unquestioning reliance on the Sims and Ossiander (1981) data and lack of willingness to even consider the possibility that more recent data better reflect current reality is most dismaying. It may mean that the Sims and Ossiander data are preferred because they rationalize higher flows and drawdown. It may exemplify the observations of cognitive science that truth never catches up with false information, i.e., remove or disprove the premises of a long-held belief and, paradoxically, some people will inappropriately continue to believe the long-held belief is warranted.”107

“Some people” unfortunately includes nearly all Northwest salmon policymakers.

NMFS appointed a blue-ribbon panel, the Snake River Salmon Recovery Team, to craft a recovery plan for endangered Snake River Salmon. The Team took months of public testimony and met with scientists from all over the Region. They approached the problem like the academics most of them were. The Chairman, the late Don Bevan, former Dean of the School of Fisheries at the University of Washington, more than once characterized the state and tribal fishery scientists pushing increased spring flow augmentation as akin to students who could not defend their thesis. The Team thought that most of the water that was being flushed down the river in the spring was wasted.

By 1995, the National Marine Fisheries Service was defensive about making reliance on flow augmentation the cornerstone of its endangered salmon strategy. Alone among all the dozens of scientific issues relevant to salmon recovery, the Proposed Recovery Plan has page after page of graphs designed to support the Plan's emphasis on flow augmentation. The entire Appendix F is called "Basis for Minimum Flow Ranges for Operation of the Federal Columbia River Power System". And the Biological Opinion for 1995 and Future Years which, as a practical matter, governs operation of the mainstem dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers, was released with an accompanying paper purporting to provide the bases for the flow targets set by NMFS.

The Service’s website, providing a selective set of materials on the salmon problem, suggests that “it seems likely that reductions in flows and turbidity in the spring have not only increased the smolts' travel time, but also added to their risk of predation on their way to the estuary. Reductions in flow have also decreased the size of the river plume extending into the ocean (an environmental factor which offers the smolts some concealment from predators when they first reach the ocean).”108

Right now, the “river plume” theory is en vogue among the conservation biologists, including the Northwest Power Planning Council's Independent Science Group.109 In all likelihood, research will eventually prove this theory as bogus as all the other asserted bases for flow augmentation. After all, just how much more turbid can we make the estuary by releasing water from Montana and Idaho? Or removing upriver dams? Enough to make a difference in predation rates?

107 D. Chapman & A. Giorgi, “Comments on Work of Biological and FCPRS Alternative Work Groups”, at 9 n.4 (1994).

108 http://kingfish.ssp.nmfs.gov/tmcintyr/fish/nwsalmon.html (accessed 12/14/96).

109 See, e.g., ISG, Return to the River 58.

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