The Northwest Power Planning Council’s Second Try, the "Normative River"

By 1996, the hypothesis that flow releases would decrease travel time, decrease in-river mortality, and decrease mortality associated with salmon migration had little life left. Because it was possible to measure changes in flow, travel time and survival, the hypothesis could be, and was, disproved.

But that did not stop the conservation biologists. Under pressure to provide some sort of scientific basis for its salmon programs, the Northwest Power Planning Council staff assembled a group of conservation biologists led by Dr. Rick Williams, a prototypical "bearded environmentalist" from Idaho with a degree in genetics. By the fall of 1996, as the Independent Science Group, they produced the most recent in a series of 500-page reports on salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest.

But this report was different. Rather than start by reviewing science, the Group began by inventing the concept of the "normative river" "as a way to describe the central processes of the Columbia River salmonid ecosystem".46 Then, the Group made the time-honored assumption (contrary to fact) that the most significant feature of the Columbia River ecosystem from the perspective of salmon survival was the spring freshet of water. Thus the Group speculated that the most important means to restore salmon is to restore their ecosystem by enormous increases in river velocity during the spring, through drawdowns or flow augmentation.

Leading promoters of the Great Salmon Hoax, like Northwest Power Planning Council Member Ken Casavant, lauded the ISG for freeing them from the straitjacket of science:

“. . . this ISG report is so refreshing. It tells us to step outside, get away from expensive and contradictory computer modeling. Kick some dirt, look at places like the Hanford Reach, understand why the habitat there is so good, then try to let nature recreate those conditions in other parts of the river system.”47

Others, like Idaho Council Member Mike Field, are working hard on public relations efforts to help “underscore [the report’s] credibility and its contribution to scientific understanding of fish survival . . . in the Columbia River Basin”.48

Most Northwest media outlets, incapable of discerning science from speculation, advise readers that the ISG report represents the verdict of science. As for policymakers whining about “contradictory computer modeling”, no one reports that one model fits the data and one is hard-wired to promote flow and drawdown without regard to the data.

Dr. Williams and his fellow advocates have many new theories for why flow matters besides the "surfing" theory discussed in Chapter 7. According to them, we must "allow spring flows that are high enough to restructure the riverine habitat, to make pools and eddies, clear out old sediment and deposit new . . ."49 But as Dr. Ernest Brannon has pointed out,

"Chinook salmon are bulldozers and I have regularly seen their redds over three feet deep in stream substrate. Chinook will plow up their own gravel. Chinook in British Columbia often use lake outlets for spawning because of the flow and temperature stability such sites provide. These circumstances are far more gravel-deficient that the river below the dams on the Elwha, and chinook do very well under these circumstances."50

While Dr. Brannon was discussing the spawning grounds below dams on the Elwha River, his remarks suggest that chinook do not require the sort of habitat restructuring sought by normative river theorists.

Moreover, as the Snake River Salmon Recovery Team has pointed out, unless new gravel can come in from upstream, restructuring would not work at all—even if flows could somehow be elevated enough to reshape the river bed without wiping out whole communities through floods. As the Team succinctly points out, “scientific evidence that this proposal would in fact benefit endangered species is not presented by the ISG”.51 Scientists like Don Chapman also warn that “[d]rawdown has no history of empirical data obtained with scientific method”.52

The Clinton/Gore Administration did conduct one experiment on the benefits of moving dirt and gravel from one part of a river to another, launching a massive media campaign to announce the program. Glen Canyon Dam has regulated flow into the Grand Canyon for decades, creating clean electric power for Southwest citizens. Bruce Babbitt appeared on national television to open the gates and release a flood of water downstream, and teams of biologists were dispatched by the Interior Department to measure the results.

The experiment was immediately proclaimed an enormous success. Debris was moved around, new sand bars were formed, and the once clear river ran muddy—a process called "flush[ing] nutrient-rich matter into the river".53 (Water quality standards preventing excessive turbidity would stop a private entity from ever getting a permit to do something like this.) No one ever asked whether the changes were worth the millions of dollars spent to achieve them. It is hard to quantify the value of moving dirt around at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Six months later, it appeared that high natural spring flows would undo nearly all the supposed positive effects of the experiment.54 And the non-native fish species and large invading shoreline plants that were targeted by the releases were "scarcely affected".55 But Bruce Babbitt isn’t going on television to talk about that. Instead, the Clinton/Gore Administration inches toward removal of the Glen Canyon Dam.56

Science seems powerless in the face of a good political slogan. The “normative river” has, like “family values”, already taken its place in the jargon of politicians eager to please environmentalists and the media. It is an especially useful phrase for politicians because it has no fixed meaning. Thus Idaho’s Governor Phil Batt could tell reporters with a straight face that drawing down John Day Reservoir by five feet “has to be an option under consideration” because it can “achieve a more normative river”.57 He also says that “large scale flow augmentation” using water from Idaho irrigators is “inconsistent with the normative approach”, while “efforts to recreate a natural hydrograph would be an action consistent with the normative approach”.58 No reporter has had the wit to ask him how to “recreate a natural hydrograph” in the Snake River without taking the water away from the irrigators.

46 "Interview: Rick Williams", Northwest Energy News, Summer 1996, at 8 (NWPPC). Informed sources stated that he Council staff was careful to conceal the genuinely radical nature of Dr. Williams' views through careful editing of this interview.

47 K. Casavant, “New thinking about Columbia salmon”, Seattle Times, Jan. 30, 1997.

48 Memo, M. Field & M. Walker (the NWPPC Public Affairs Director) to Council Members, Feb. 20, 1997, at 1.

49 "Interview: Rick Williams", Northwest Energy News, Summer 1996, at 8.

50 Quoted in Rescue Elwha Area Lakes report dated April 5, 1996. The author writes: "We learned that the main argument used by the other side—that the dams were ruining the river for salmon spawning by starving it for gravel—is a hoax . . . We have the written opinions of two biologists, both holding Phd's from the University of Washington, that there is no truth to the 'gravel starvation' theory."

51 Letter, Snake River Salmon Recovery Team to J. Etchart, April 17, 1997, at 15.

52 D. Chapman & A. Giorgi, “Comments on Work of Biological and FCPRS Alternative Workgroups”, at 4 n.2 (1994).

53 "Man-made flood in Grand Canyon revives river, banks", The Oregonian, Oct. 9, 1996, at A7. This article is typical of what passes for reporting on environmental issues, representing uncritical regurgitation of government-supplied "news".

54 T. Kenworthy, “Nature may undo human work in Grand Canyon”, The Oregonian, Feb. 17, 1997.

55 W. Stevens, “Grand Canyon roars again as ecological clock is turned back”, Feb. 25, 1997.

56 See D. Beard, "Dams Aren't Forever", New York Times, Oct. 6, 1997. Daniel Beard was Clinton's first Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and is now a senior vice president of the National Audubon Society.

57 M. Wickline, “Batt says port has nothing to worry about; Governor says that if John Day is drawn down to help steelhead, he doesn’t want it to go lower than minimum pool”, Lewiston Tribune Online, Jan. 29, 1997.

58 “Measures to Enhance Salmon and Steelhead Migration Success During 1997”, March 25, 1997, at 2 n.1 (Idaho Governor’s Office).

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