The Northwest Power Planning Council's First Step Towards Drawdown

As explained in Chapter 9, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an extraordinary opinion in 1994 declaring that the Northwest Power Planning Council had failed to explain its rejection of state and tribal fishery agency proposals to increase flows for salmon. The state and tribal fishery agencies stepped up pressure on the Council to rewrite the fish and wildlife program and adopt their recommendations.

The Council staff hastily cobbled together a new fish and wildlife program giving the state and tribal fishery agencies what they asked for—at least to the extent that it was technically feasible to do so. The proposed program called for very significant increases in river flows, and significant steps toward drawdown. In particular, the Council concluded that an immediate drawdown of John Day Reservoir to Minimum Operating Pool was necessary.

Computer modeling evidence suggested that the effect of large scale drawdowns would almost certainly be negative on endangered salmon, particularly the scarcer endangered Snake River fall chinook salmon. At our request, Dr. James Anderson prepared a paper using the CRiSP and SLCM computer models to compare the effects of a transportation-based salmon strategy vs. a drawdown strategy, which he forwarded to the Council. His cover letter to the Council summarized the findings:

“What is vital for the Council to understand is that salmon survival decreases under a drawdown-based strategy, and increases, in some cases substantially, under a maximum transportation strategy. The lifecycle model runs presented in the paper illustrate dramatically that the Council’s apparent path poses a risk of causing the rapid extinction of fall chinook in particular . . .”13

Dr. Anderson also warned the Council that the state and tribal computer models on which its staff relied “ignore much of the available data, substantially overstate the benefits of increasing river velocity, and substantially understate the benefits of smolt transportation.”14

The entire Northwest Senatorial Delegation wrote to the Council on the eve of the vote to urge the Council to reject drawdown, but the Council staff withheld the letter from the Council on the grounds that the time period for public comment had expired.

On December 15, 1994, the state and tribal drawdown proposal came up for a vote. Because both Montana members opposed drawdown, the unanimous votes of all other members would be required to adopt it. Pro-drawdown forces had to force a vote quickly because a new governor had been elected in Idaho, Phil Batt, who was not expected to support drawdown. One of the Idaho representatives appointed by Govenor Andrus, Jay Webb, resigned on principle rather than support the proposal. Governor Andrus quickly appointed a new member from his staff, Andy Brunelle, to vote as directed.

The final vote was 6-2 in favor of the proposal, with the both Montana members rejecting the program in an eloquent dissent. They faulted the Council for its hasty adoption of measures whose effects were unknown, and probably harmful to the salmon. Washington’s Dr. Ken Casavant was perceived as the “swing vote”, and Eastern Washington agricultural interests never forgave him for it. As of 1997, they are still trying to get rid of him.

Congress got the last word, however, because Congress had to appropriate the funds necessary to do drawdown. As the Conference Committee Report for the 1996 Energy and Water Appropriations bill (H.R. 1905) stated:

“The conferees share the concern of both the Senate and the House regarding the costs and justification for the John Day drawdown as an effective method for salmon recovery. To date, the conferees have not been provided with any scientific evidence supporting the drawdown; therefore the Administration is directed to provide scientific justification of the project as an effective means of salmon recovery along with any further requests for funding. Considering the extraordinary cost of completing this project, if the Administration does not find significant benefits, the proposal should be abandoned altogether.”

On November 28, 1995, General Fuhrman of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers punted the question of scientific justification to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which did not respond for more than a year. When Regional Director Stelle finally responded, he claimed that the new information supporting drawdown included the ISG’s Return to the River report; he also said that NMFS now “believes that a deeper drawdown of John Day, possibly to natural river levels, should also be studied”.15

13 Letter, Dr. J. Anderson to A. Duncan and W. Stelle, Jr., Dec. 13, 1994, at 2.

14 Id. at 1.

15 Letter, W. Stelle, Jr., to R. Griffin, Dec. 23, 1996.

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