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Sept. 11 Events may Affect Next Year's Salmon Budgets

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, October 19, 2001

With budget issues a main item on the agenda, the NW Power Planning Council's F&W committee played to a packed house the other day in Portland. BPA is still committed to spending $186 million on the Columbia Basin's F&W program, but Council members heard that other federal agencies may not have any money to pay for their share of the BiOp next year, due to shifts in priorities brought about by last month's terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The Council is struggling with the BiOp itself, and working to integrate it into its new subbasin planning process.

A cameo appearance by the new NMFS regional administrator Bob Lohn, late of the Power Council staff, added to the draw. He hinted that NMFS may soon make some significant changes in how it handles the ESA and fish listings in response to a recent court decision that ruled against the agency.

"One signal I want to send clearly is in regard to how the Administration responds to the Hogan decision," Lohn said, referring to the Oregon federal judge's ruling that NMFS erred by not providing ESA protection for hatchery fish along with wild stocks of the same evolutionarily significant unit. "Subbasin planning is absolutely critical." He said that no one in the Administration "is comfortable with the idea that you can walk away from stocks in poor condition."

Lohn said there has been intense discussion in DC over the Hogan ruling and that it will go through a full set of ESA policy decision-making. "There's no final decision yet."

He told Council members that in a few weeks, their work would be seen to be very important. But Lohn wouldn't elaborate, leading to speculation that he was referring to the extensive effort, led by Council staff, to overhaul hatchery practices throughout the basin. More than one observer said the remark signaled a possible sea change in the way NMFS will rate hatchery stocks in ESA-listed fish populations. Whether that could lead to de-listing of some stocks is anybody's guess.

Council staffer Doug Marker, acting head of the NWPPC's fish and wildlife division, said Bush Administration priorities have shifted due to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The five-year plan to implement the BiOp is on hold, he said, but the ongoing one-year implementation plan is still moving ahead.

Using the Bureau of Reclamation as an example, Marker said funding for irrigation screens and water rights to aid fish recovery in tributaries--items that also give the action agencies credit against the BiOp--may not be available because the agency may have to ask for money to safeguard its projects. But neither the Council nor BPA wants to be on the hook for all BiOp costs.

"The Council can play a central role in getting appropriations," Marker told the group, by lobbying for agency budgets. Federal agencies are not allowed to lobby Congress for their funds.

Sarah McNary, BPA's own F&W head, was there to show support for the Council's subbasin planning process and discuss the 50 pages of comments her agency had sent the Council over funding F&W proposals. She called it "the beginning of a dialog" and stressed that BPA's comments do not mean that it's exclusively a BiOp-focused review. It's all part of a complicated effort to reach compliance with the BiOp, after input from NMFS on whether certain proposals get "credit" for implementing the plan to avoid jeopardy to fish stocks listed under the ESA.

The immediate issue is how to prioritize fish recovery proposals in the Columbia plateau region, where the Council's independent science panel and fish managers agreed on $66 million in projects for next year.

With no budget ceiling to work with originally, fish managers had come up with over $80 million in proposals before the scientific review. Last year, the plateau province budget amounted to only $28 million.

"BPA never gave us a number to work with," said Brian Allee, head of the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority. He said CBFWA will now be going back to take another look at the budget with BPA.

Marker said the problem is how to allocate funding among the provinces still under review, since $41 million has already been committed to three regions. Though BPA has bumped total F&W spending from $159 million last year to $186 million, pro-rating the increase over the provinces still under review would add only about $8 million for the plateau province and bump spending for the area, which contains some of the program's spendiest hatchery projects, up to $35 million. That means cutting the current number of recommended proposals in half.

So the Council staff will lead the prioritization effort. The question, Marker said, is whether BPA will OK those recommendations, even if it didn't say yes the first time around, as with the so-called "early action" and "high priority" projects BPA decided to fund on its own.

A sleeper issue that made the agenda last week was the proposal to create a new oversight board to guide activities of the Fish Passage Center, long seen by power advocates and some others as an advocacy group when it was created to provide information on fish passage and make recommendations for flow and spill operations of the hydro system.

FPC staffer Margeret Filardo recently made headlines by announcing results of juvenile survival that showed benefits of spill during this year's migration, adding to earlier results announced in August (See NW Fishletter 129) . However, when pressed, the FPC was not able to produce documentation to explain the findings. In fact, NMFS scientists told NW Fishletter that they were unable to duplicate the FPC survival results and that sample sizes were so low that results from the spill survival analyses were "statistically insignificant."

That's exactly why some Council members have pushed for more oversight of the Fish Passage Center. When Council counsel John Shurts said he thought the FPC results should be presented to Council members along with the latest NMFS results, Montana's Stan Grace asked if the Fish Passage Center had any supporting documents besides the presentation that's available on its website . "They have not, I've been told," said Grace. Shurts said the staff was working on that.

Bill Rudolph
Sept. 11 Events may Affect Next Year's Salmon Budgets
NW Fishletter, October 19, 2001

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