NOAA Protects Salmon in Fresh and Saltwater and We Should Keep it That Way

Nothing creates trouble like basing major government initiatives on false information.  Yesterday, the White House announced what it characterized as an “ambitious plan of government consolidation” to transfer the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), currently housed in the Department of Commerce, to the Department of Interior.  In announcing this new initiative, President Obama stated that:  “As it turns out, the Interior Department is in charge of salmon in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in saltwater,” drawing laughter and echoing statements that he previously made at last year’s State of the Union speech. 

The President's claim may be a good joke, but it's simply not accurate.  

The first time that President Obama made this comment, several groups corrected him, pointing out that the Commerce Department actually has primary responsibility for salmon, in both fresh and saltwater.  In California, the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of NOAA, is in charge of preventing our major freshwater dams and diversion projects from destroying our native salmon runs.  In fact, the Obama Administration just made an announcement this week about NOAA’s efforts to reduce the adverse impacts of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project on threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead trying to migrate through the Delta on their way to the sea. 

It's primarily the dams, not the salmon, that are under the aegis of the Department of Interior, which is why it's so critical for NOAA to have an independent voice.  The Central Valley Project, for example, is operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, an entity within the Department of Interior, which has historically done a less than stellar job at protecting salmon.  The Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA), enacted in 1992, did give one small slice of salmon management to the Interior Department, directing it to dedicate a certain amount of Sacramento River water every year to double beleaguered Central Valley salmon runs.  Not only have salmon runs declined precipitously since that time, but a recent independent report on the CVPIA salmon doubling program stated that the reviewers were “flabbergasted” at how poorly this program had been managed by Interior. 

Ultimately, the problem with salmon management on the West Coast has not been an irrational division of responsibilities, but too much political interference in scientific decision-making.  Only when the scientists were allowed to operate freely did NMFS conclude that continuing status-quo water project operations in the Delta would lead to the extinction of listed salmon runs in the Central Valley. The Bureau of Reclamation is now helping NMFS defend the changes in water project operations needed to avoid that disastrous result.  Note that the scientists were within NOAA, which is primarily a science agency, unlike the vast Department of Interior, which has many different charges.

Streamlining government is a good goal, but let’s make sure that policy decisions are based on the facts.  And effective streamlining isn’t about making things look more rational on paper, it’s about enabling the federal government to carry out its work more effectively for the public.  In the case of protecting salmon, this move would not result in better results for the survival of fish and the communities that depend on them.

NOAA is and has long been the lead agency in charge of protecting salmon in salt and freshwater.  It should stay that way.  The proposed reorganization is a solution in search of a problem.  If the Administration is interested in real improvements, it should be figuring out how to do more to ensure that NOAA’s scientists remain independent, well-supported, and insulated from political pressure.