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BPA Contract Delays Endanger NW Fisheries

by Jennifer Hemmingsen
Indian Country - February 5, 2002

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Bonneville Power Authority owes more than $10 million to Columbia Basin treaty tribes for contracted fish restoration work, tribal officials say.

Bureaucratic backlog has prevented the BPA from renewing millions of dollars in ongoing contracts- ranging from managing fish hatcheries to modifying irrigation systems -- but tribes continue to do the work, and foot the bill, said Charles Hudson, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission information officer.

According to tribal records, the BPA owes the Yakama Nation in Washington about $6.2 million, the Nez Pierce in Idaho about $3 million, the Warm Springs Indians of Central Oregon about $1 million and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indians of Northeastern Oregon about $650,000 in fisheries contracts.

That debt is "ham-stringing" some projects and hampering the good faith working relationship between BPA and the tribes, Hudson said.

"Contractual delays have a direct impact on the effort to get fish restoration going," he said. "Salmon have enough threats. Archaic contracting procedures should be the least of our concerns."

The Yakama Fisheries Program runs three fish hatcheries, and two acclimation facilities, performs research work throughout several river systems connecting to the Columbia River and employs 130 people for BPA contract work, said Program Manager Lynn Hatcher.

Yakama Nation is used to paying out a small cash advance while waiting for project reimbursement, but in the last year BPA has slid further behind in its paperwork and the Yakama investment has grown by millions of dollars, Hatcher said.

"The program isn't suffering because the Yakama Nation is fronting the funds," he said. "We haven't laid off people. We believe that Bonneville is good for their word. What hurts is the Tribes having to front their own money."

BPA isn't responsible for the whole $6.2 million in arrears, Hatcher said. Yakama Nation was responsible for some administrative foul-ups as well, but BPA's share was becoming a big enough problem to prompt the Nation to join the three other tribes in asking then-BPA Acting Administrator Steve Wright for help in a December 2001 meeting.

"We just said 'Enough's enough, we can't afford to front that kind of money, let's talk,'" Hatcher said.

Other tribes agree they can only continue programs for so long without getting paid.

"It is beginning to put us into a crunch," Administrator Richard Gay of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation told the Board of Trustees earlier this month. "Cash out of pocket is getting to be a very real concern."

In 2000, the BPA contracted for $14.7 million in fish and wildlife work with the four tribes, said BPA Fish and Wildlife Program Manager Bob Austin.

The BPA didn't know there was a problem until leaders of the four tribes brought it up last December, Austin said. Since then, the BPA has set up a series of meetings to try to identify the problem.

Since December, Yakama Nation has had positive discussions with BPA and is sure the problem will be fixed, but time is becoming an important issue for the tribe, Hatcher said.

"Everything so far has been really good," he said. "The proof is in the bank statements though. We needed it done yesterday but we know that things don't happen overnight. It's going to take some time, maybe a few months."

Jennifer Hemmingsen
BPA Contract Delays Endanger NW Fisheries
Indian Country, February 5, 2002

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