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BPA Blinks at New BIOP

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, January 18, 2001

Though the Bonneville Power Administration hopes to sign off on the new hydro BiOp within a month, it may not be able to pay for all the strategies that NMFS has designed to keep the federal dams from jeopardizing the existence of listed salmon and steelhead. Dan Daley, the power agency's representative to the IT , delivered that message to fellow members at last week's policy meeting of state and federal agencies.

The new 10-year BiOp spells out 199 different "Reasonable, Prudent Alternatives [RPAs]" to current hydro operations that the feds have included to improve fish passage, modify hatcheries, build new transmission lines to allow for a more flexible spill program at federal dams, and pay for extensive off-site mitigation efforts to restore habitat.

Nearly 80 RPAs deal with direct improvements at dams to aid both juvenile and adult fish, though previous NMFS analyses suggested that further improvements at the dams may wring little in the way of increasing survivals. Survival of migrating juveniles has doubled since the lower Snake dams were completed in the late 1970s.

Daley said BPA might be tied to default spending caps for fish and wildlife in order to meet its annual Treasury payment, especially in light of ongoing negotiations over increases to power rates. "Particularly in a year like this," he noted, referring to the low water year that seems to be shaping up, in the 80 MAF range.

He also warned that funding for Corps and BuRec RPAs is tied to Congressional budgets, which means there is "a certain amount of risk" associated with it.

"If BPA can't afford everything, a robust discussion will take place," said NMFS assistant regional administrator Brian Brown, "to see if this BiOp will hold up." Brown said his agency maintains that all RPAs must be completed to keep the hydro system's "no-jeopardy" ruling.

Brown told the group that the major changes to hydro operations were made in the 1995 BiOp and that there is an "inherent" assumption that "we improved things with the 95 BiOp." He noted increases in fish survival throughout the system and cuts in harvest in accordance with NMFS-mandated policy, but he also admitted the region was "lucky" about improvements in ocean conditions that have boosted fish numbers lately.

The new BiOp is expected to cost BPA an extra $100 million annually, on top of the $250 million the agency now shells out every year for the fish and wildlife plan. Added to that is another $175 million to $190 million for habitat and hatchery improvements in FY 2001, to which BPA would contribute, but not completely fund.

The habitat and hatchery improvements would be spelled out by action agencies--BPA, COE, BuRec--that are charged with developing a 5-year implementation plan that includes off-site mitigation efforts for improving listed fish populations. This new wrinkle has drawn the Power Planning Council into the fish recovery equation, along with its revamped fish and wildlife program.

One significant element of the NWPPC's new program involves examining all proposals from a costs and benefits perspective--which includes any action's potential effect on power generation.

Bob Lohn, head of the Council's fish and wildlife division, participated in the meeting by phone to explain his agency's position. He used the example of the extra fall and winter flows fish managers have requested at Bonneville to protect newly colonized areas for both fall chinook and ESA-listed chum salmon, and said the Council could decide that the flow strategy was "too big a hit" on the power system. After some discussion, the issue was clarified to mean that the Council would like operating agencies to estimate reliability and costs for operations beyond direct BiOp recommendations.

BPA's Daley concurred. "There's no sound reason not to..."

Some wondered if the Council wanted to get involved in the TMT/IT process from a decision-making standpoint, but Jim Litchfield, Montana's rep on the IT, tried to explain. "They're looking for balance of costs to power and fish benefits." Lohn agreed.

But figuring costs, especially after the huge run-up in spot market power prices, could be hard. Daley said BPA had different ways of calculating them. "We go back and forth on how we calculate costs."

Besides the cost issue, others had more fundamental disagreements with the Council's new effort, which is directed at sub-basin planning with BiOp mandates. "The action agencies [BPA, Corps, BuRec] are limited to what they can do," said Idaho representative Jim Yost. "They must talk to the state."

"Washington had some of those same concerns," said WDFW's Jim Nielsen. Pointing to off-site mitigation actions, he said there needs to be additional funding available to the states.

BPA said it might have a Record of Decision signed in a month, but other action agencies didn't seem as anxious to sign without an implementation plan yet developed.

Daley suggested a simple letter accepting the BiOp, with a note that the plan will follow. Once the ROD is signed, the BiOp goes into effect.

But state reps admitted that the current TMT/IT forum created by the 1995 BiOp is less than ideal. Washington and Oregon are represented by fish and wildlife personnel, while Montana and Idaho have representatives who report to the governor and confer with each state's representatives to the Power Planning Council.

With his own state's water and agriculture agencies not represented, Washington's Nielsen admitted that he didn't speak for them all--and that there are not only differences of opinions among agencies within one state, but also within the agencies themselves. He said it would be difficult to speak with a single voice.

Brown said it was the same with the feds.

The IT began as a policy-level forum, whose duties included settling disputes raised at the weekly TMT meetings between fish and hydro managers. The two forums now contain so many of the same people that there "is an appearance of impropriety," said facilitator Donna Silverberg, who encouraged members to work toward a better way to represent all state interests.

CRA's Bruce Lovelin was encouraged by the meeting. "For the last eight years, NMFS has had the Clinton Administration's ear. Now we can see maybe a little more parity among BPA , the Bureau [BuRec] and the environmental agencies."

After the meeting, Daley said BPA was "working furiously to have a 1-year implementation plan by March." He said it will be a chore to integrate the 1-year BiOp schedule with the new Council program since some of its elements won't be reviewed for two more years. "We're going to do our best to implement the BiOp." -Bill Rudolph

Bill Rudolph
BPA Blinks at New BIOP
NW Fishletter, January 18, 2001

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