The Redding Searchlight: Fired federal adviser files whistle-blower complaint over Klamath dam removal

February 28, 2012 | By | Add a Comment

UPDATED: Fired federal adviser files whistle-blower complaint over Klamath dam removal

Professor says information was manipulated to support removal

By Ryan Sabalow

Originally published 11:32 p.m., February 28, 2012
Updated 02:08 p.m., February 29, 2012

A federal agency’s former scientific integrity adviser has filed a whistle-blower complaint saying he was fired from his job after he began questioning top officials about “spinning” evidence to tout the removal of Klamath River dams.

“The bottom line is they need to be honest about the science and the decision making,” Paul R. Houser, an associate hydrology professor at George Mason University, told the Record Searchlight on Tuesday, in his first remarks to the media about his whistle-blower complaint.

He says there have been a number of scientific studies that showed dam removal comes with some risks or wouldn’t be nearly as beneficial to threatened coho salmon habitat as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s staff made it seem.

Salazar, appointed to the post by President Barack Obama in 2009, has made clear the issue is a high personal priority for him.

Houser’s claim, filed last week with Department of the Interior’s Office of Executive Secretariat and Regulatory Affairs, has already begun to impact the debate over removing the four dams, three of which are in Siskiyou County. The dams are owned by PacifiCorp, a private company that wants to remove them.

County Supervisor Jim Cook, who traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to lobby federal officials against dam removal, said Tuesday that staff members of north state U.S. Reps. Wally Herger, R-Chico, and Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, are investigating. House committees have expressed interest as well, Cook said.

Herger’s spokesman Bryan Cleveland said today his office wasn’t actively investigating the case, though Herger is interested in learning the results of an internal investigation conducted by the Department of the Interior.

Siskiyou supervisors and other dam-removal opponents long have complained about the scientific integrity of the process.

The supervisors have threatened to sue, saying Salazar isn’t being genuine when he says officials are thoroughly reviewing the proposal before making a decision. The supervisors complain dam removal is a foregone conclusion, with federal regulators “cherry-picking” science to support their views.

“It is what our fear has always been,” Cook said Tuesday in a phone interview from Washington.

Department of the Interior spokeswoman Kate Kelly said in a statement officials are reviewing Houser’s complaint. The statement didn’t address any of the allegations.

“Interior has established a strong scientific, public input and peer review process that is guiding the studies that will lead to a decision about potential removal of the four Klamath River dams,” Kelly said.

Houser said he was hired last spring as the Bureau of Reclamation’s only scientific integrity adviser. Kelly said Houser’s duties included checking the scientific integrity of the Klamath dams studies, among other Bureau projects.

Houser said in September he began growing concerned about federal officials issuing reports and news releases that “intentionally distort” the negatives of the project, something he calls “intentional falsification.”

Houser said he was told by one of his supervisors that Salazar “wants to remove those dams” and he had violated “unwritten rules” when he began sending emails to his superiors questioning what appeared to him to be deliberate spin.

“That was my goal as scientific integrity officer, the kind of obligations I was hired to do,” Houser, 41, said.

In a lengthy whistle-blower report posted on his website, Houser said he was especially concerned because removing the dams and associated environmental work would cost more than $1 billion, “so a misinformed or premeditated decision could be a gross waste of funds.”

He said he was reprimanded, placed on probation and eventually fired this month.

Last week, he filed a whistle-blower complaint challenging violations of the government’s scientific code of conduct. He said he’s not that interested in getting his job back considering what happened to him.

He’s since returned to teaching full time at George Mason, he said.

“My motivation is to get the scientific integrity and get the science honored in the process,” he said. ” I really hope this doesn’t happen to somebody else.”

Congressman Herger described Houser’s allegations as “troubling concerns.”

“An independent entity at Interior should thoroughly and objectively vet these concerns, and the results should be shared openly with the public,” Herger said in a statement Tuesday. “Interior’s promotion of sound science in this process is of paramount importance.”

California’s two other north state congressmen, McClintock and Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, couldn’t be reached Tuesday afternoon.

S. Craig Tucker, Klamath campaign coordinator for the Karuk tribe, said Houser’s complaint deals with how the science was presented to the public, but Houser doesn’t address the merits of some 6,000 pages of scientific evidence federal officials and judges will need to review before making a final decision on whether to tear down the dams. The Karuk tribe supports a plan to remove the dams.

Tucker said it would be impossible to condense all that scientific data in a simple press briefing in a way that pleases everyone.

“There are a lot of people who weren’t happy about what got included either,” Tucker said.

Glen H. Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said he hopes the investigation uncovers any potential wrongdoing by Houser’s supervisors. But Spain, also a dam-removal advocate, said the science itself is sound.

“That’s why we do this, to eliminate any potential biases and get a good summary of best possible science as we can,” he said. “That’s a good process that’s being followed to the letter in this circumstance.”

Houser’s allegations come as Salazar announced Monday that he was putting off making a decision on dynamiting the Klamath River dams because Congress has not yet given him the go-ahead.

Two years ago, a group of federal officials, farmers, fishermen, conservation groups, American Indian tribes, the governors of Oregon and California and the dams’ owners signed two agreements that agreed to study taking down the dams.

Under the agreements, Salazar was given until March 31 to make a decision. Salazar said Monday he had no choice but to stall because the agreements call for congressional backing before he makes a decision. A Democrat-backed bill authored this fall that authorizes the removal plus $800 million in environmental restorations hasn’t yet made it to a committee hearing in the Republican-controlled House.

Filed in: Klamath

Dr. Paul R. Houser

About the Author (Author Profile)

Dr. Houser in an internationally recognized expert in local to global land surface-atmospheric remote sensing, in-situ observation and numerical simulation, development and application of hydrologic data assimilation methods, scientific integrity and policy, and global water and energy cycling. He received his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Hydrology and Water Resources from the University of Arizona in 1992 and 1996 respectively. Dr. Houser's previous experience includes internships at the U.S. Geological Survey and at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Dr. Houser joined the NASA-GSFC Hydrological Sciences Branch and the Data Assimilation Office (DAO/GMAO) in 1997, served as manager of NASA’s Land Surface Hydrology Program, and served as branch head of the Hydrological Science Branch. In 2005, he joined the George Mason University Climate Dynamics Program and the Geography and Geoinformation Sciences Department as Professor of Global Hydrology, and formed CREW (the Center for Research for Environment and Water). Dr. Houser has also teamed with groundwater development and exploration companies (EarthWater Global and Geovesi) and has served as Science Advisor to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Dr. Houser has led numerous scientific contributions, including the development of Land Data Assimilation Systems (LDAS), the Hydrospheric States Mission (Hydros/SMAP), the Land Information System (LIS), the NASA Energy and Water cycle Study (NEWS), and the Water Cycle Solutions Network (WaterNet).

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