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Economic and dam related articles

BPA Fish and Wildlife Future
Holds Promise and Uncertainty

by Laura Berg
NW Fishletter, March 7, 2016

BPA's responsibilities for the environment, fish and wildlife were discussed Feb. 11 at the Focus 2028 session in Portland.

"The future is dynamic and demanding," said Lori Bodi, BPA VP of environment, fish and wildlife.

"What's going to be different and what's going to stay the same, we really don't know," she said. "We have changing legal drivers, including multiple layers of litigation, legislation and regulation with multiple species determining the challenge.

"We have changing science and a changing climate. Then there's the retirement of the baby boomers. We are going to see a different set of players between now and 2028," Bodi said, adding, "Our management response to change has to address both cost and biological values."

Bill Maslen, BPA director of fish and wildlife, asked rhetorically, "How did we get here?" The Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program is the largest ecosystem recovery project in the nation.

"We are mitigating for 31 dams and multiple species," he said.

BPA and its ratepayers fund the program at about $500 million a year, a figure that includes power purchases and forgone revenue.

The authority for the fish and wildlife program stems from the Northwest Power Act, the Endangered Species Act, tribal trust responsibility and treaty rights, he said.

"The power act and the ESA are complementary," he remarked, "but how we implement under the power act is flexible, while the ESA is more discrete." Maslen said other considerations were the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act.

Breaking out the costs of complying with these legal mandates, Maslen showed that over half of the budget goes to settling BiOp obligations. When looking at expenditures by species, 69 percent is being spent on anadromous fish, with the balance going to resident fish and wildlife.

BPA Senior Policy Advisor Lydia Grimm pointed out that the BiOp was inked in 2008 and expires in 2017.

"BPA is waiting to hear how [Federal District Judge Michael Simon] rules on the hydro system BiOp," she said. "That's a big pivot point. BPA is optimistic because we are seeing good results," but "BPA needs to know whether we need to do more for endangered fish."

Grimm said that the Columbia Basin Fish Accords also expire in 2017. These mitigation arrangements were reached with tribes and states in 2008 in exchange for agreements not to sue. "Shall we do it again?" she asked. "It depends on how well we've done."

Grimm referred to new issues that have emerged, such as fish passage above Grand Coulee, water temperature issues and climate change adaptation. "We have new federal guidance to include climate change in NEPA documents," she said.

While the Columbia River Treaty goes until 2024, "we hope its renegotiation gets started pretty soon," she said, indicating that ecosystem function would be part of the deliberations.

"Litigation continues to be important," she said. Other cases have recently been brought, one on hatchery management under the Mitchell Act and the other against the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, she stated.

When the discussion segued to what mitigation efforts were achieving, Supervisory Fish Biologist Jason Sweet emphasized federal hydro system improvements that are benefiting fish.

"We are optimizing fish passage," Sweet said. "Dams are on track to meet performance standards of 96-percent average juvenile survival for spring and 93 percent for summer migrating fish."

"The new surface bypass systems, designed by the Corps, are often the preferred route [for juvenile salmon and steelhead] through the dams," he noted.

Travel time for juvenile fish through the migration corridor from Lower Granite Dam to Bonneville Dam has improved. "Travel time is about two weeks, which is much faster than in previous decades," he said. (During low flow conditions, as occurred in 2015, travel time is about three weeks, which is approximately 10 days shorter than in prior decades.)

In terms of habitat, John Barco, BPA manager of policy and planning, said BPA funding from 2007 to 2015 resulted in:

Barco underscored that such actions "will continue to contribute benefits into the future," and specifically identified reconnecting floodplain habitats with the river and estuarine waters and the restoration of cold-water refuges as actions with long-term benefits.

Hatchery programs such as the conservation hatcheries for Snake River sockeye constitute "a well-thought-out safety net," he said. He included two successful propagation projects that reintroduced salmon to rivers where the fish had been extirpated, one for spring chinook in the Okanogan River and the other for coho in the Yakima River.

He anticipated that future hatchery reforms would benefit wild fish. Barco was also bullish on the basin's predator control efforts.

Panelists cited the positive trend in overall salmon and steelhead returns to the Columbia Basin since the historic lows of the 1990s.

On the financial side, Bryan Mercier, business operations support, showed the annual fish and wildlife expenditures growing since 2000, but stabilizing in 2011.

"The budget increased after the BiOp," Mercier said, "but now we are able to keep it in check.

"Even though the program has doubled in size, the number of employees has not," he said. BPA spends only 7 percent of the budget on overhead. Mercier explained that the agency relies instead on systems, deliverables, performance standards and "robust relationships with our project sponsors."

Looking to 2028, Mercier mentioned initiatives for maximizing other sources for cost sharing; finding opportunities for long-term agreements, particularly after the 2017 expiration of the BiOp and the Accords; and assessing the fish and wildlife program's hatcheries and fish screens for better operations and management planning.

He and other panelists singled out the agency's ongoing efforts to beef up research and monitoring and potentially find savings through better-conceived projects.

Wrapping up the session, Bodi reviewed the new issues that would continue to challenge the agency as it approaches 2028. Besides those already described, the list included ocean conditions, proposals for additional spill, consultations on bull trout, lamprey conservation, toxics and invasive species.

She reminded ratepayers that other Northwest dam operators have significant expenditures for fish and wildlife. She mentioned the mid-Columbia PUDs, Idaho Power and Portland General Electric.

Dam operators are not the only funders, either, she said, giving NOAA Fisheries and the State of Oregon, which uses lottery monies, as examples. "We are the biggest [funder]," said Bodi.

"No other group has responsibility for 31 dams," added policy analyst Grimm.

"This is not fish interest versus ratepayers," Bodi stressed. "We are all in this together -- being good environmental stewards."

Laura Berg
BPA Fish and Wildlife Future Holds Promise and Uncertainty
NW Fishletter, March 7, 2016

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