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Commentaries and editorials

Senate Panel Orders BPA to
Cease Fish Passage Center Funding

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - June 24, 2005

The Senate Energy and Water Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2006, approved by the full Senate Appropriations Committee late last week, was accompanied with some surprise language for those involved in Columbia Basin salmon recovery.

Report language accompanying the legislation directs the Bonneville Power Administration to cease funding for the Fish Passage Center in FY 2006, which begins Oct. 1, 2005.

The Portland-based Fish Passage Center (FPC) is a fish data collection project funded by BPA through the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Fish and Wildlife Program.

BPA now spends about $139 million a year to fund more than 300 fish and wildlife mitigation projects.

The FPC's budget for FY 2005 was $1.3 million and it is asking for a similar amount in FY 2006.

In its report, the Senate Appropriations Committee said it is "concerned about the increasing cost of salmon recovery efforts in the Columbia River Basin, and about the potential adverse impact of those increased costs on customers of the Bonneville Power Administration.

"The Committee also is concerned about the quality and efficiency of some of the fish data collection efforts and analyses being performed.

"As a result, during fiscal year 2006, the Bonneville Power Administration may make no new obligations from the Bonneville Power Administration Fund in support of the Fish Passage Center.

"The Committee understands that there are universities in the Pacific Northwest that already collect fish data for the region and are well-positioned to take on the responsibilities now being performed by the Fish Passage Center, and that the universities can carry out those responsibilities at a savings to the region's ratepayers that fund these programs," says the report.

The bill goes next to the Senate floor and then onto a conference committee with the House later this summer or fall. The House report accompanying its energy and water bill does not mention the Fish Passage Center.

The report language -- sometimes called a "rider" -- came from Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, one of three Northwest senators who sit on the Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee. The others are Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.

Sid Smith, spokesman for Craig, said the FPC language was supported "by the full committee."

Smith said the language is part of an effort "to look at fish and wildlife expenditures and see what is working and get some good accounting."

He said with the court-ordered summer spill, "costing an extra $67 million, BPA needs to find ways to save money."

Mike Hansen, a spokesman for BPA, said "when Sen. Craig's legislation came to light, Steve Wright (BPA administrator) was asked this week if BPA would fight for the FPC. We said we would not, but we would not oppose it (FPC) either."

"We do see the need for data collection and we are willing to pay for it," Hansen said. "It's our understanding that there are other institutions" that can do such work.

Hansen said one of BPA's concerns is that the FPC "has not been helpful in bridging the gap among those with differing points of views" regarding management of the hydrosystem.

Michele DeHart, FPC manager, said she was "totally surprised" by the language in the committee's report. She said no one from Congress had contacted her about it or asked for information about the FPC.

She said maybe the language would not have emerged if "they see what we are actually doing. We design and implement a smolt monitoring system, we are a first-tier data collection project. We give support to agencies and tribes.''

She cited the skills and dedication of her employees. She said when looking at the "high level of expertise" of the FPC staff, "I don't think anybody else can do this work as cheaply as we do, and produce the same quality and level of work."

The FPC's funding sponsor is the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission and the center's primary constituents are the Columbia Basin's tribes and state and wildlife agencies.

The FPC, with 11 employees, produces juvenile and adult fish passage data that is used for implementation of biological opinions and the NPCC's Fish and Wildlife Program mainstem passage measures.

The FPC designs and implements a smolt monitoring program, a dissolved gas monitoring program and comparative fish survival studies that track fish travel time and smolt-to-adult returns.

The FPC also responds to requests for data, analysis and information, and assists state agencies and tribes in formulating "in-season" flow and spill recommendations for fish passage known as System Operations Requests. During the fish migration season, these "SORs" are discussed on a nearly weekly basis at the multi-agency Technical Management Team meetings.

In participating in the TMT, which is part of the so-called Regional Forum under the 2004 biological opinion, the "salmon managers" use FPC's weekly summary of flow, spill, water quality and smolt passage data in developing SORs that guide flow, spill and reservoir drafts and refill.

For more information about the FPC's work go to its website at

For about 20 years, as part of its Fish and Wildlife Program, the Council has recommended that BPA fund the FPC.

However, periodically, over the past few years, some parties have suggested that the FPC's data may be skewed or have a bias in favor of fish passage flow and spill policies that are costly to the hydropower system.

DeHart says all the FPC's work is "totally transparent" and available for review by others. She said the FPC's data system passed muster when audited by a private auditing firm and has been "tested and retested."

Nevertheless, in response to concerns about the FPC, the NPCC set up the Fish Passage Center Oversight Board, which chaired is by an NPPC member and includes representatives of stakeholder groups -- tribes, agencies, fishing organizations, utilities.

In addition, the Council created a subcommittee to review the FPC. Members were Montana's John Hines and Oregon's Gene Derfler, both who have subsequently left the Council, and Washington's Larry Cassidy.

Among a series of recommendations in October 2004, this subcommittee said it "had become aware of several entities currently operating in the region that provide data collection services. The subcommittee recommends that the Council immediately commission an outside firm to audit data collection programs in the region and report on whether consolidation of data collection can provide a more efficient and less costly way of accumulating this data while still providing equal or even better access to the data.

"Such a change may provide financial savings because alternative institutions may already possess the computer infrastructure and secure data bases necessary to provide this function.

"The subcommittee believes any savings resulting from such a move should be applied to other fish projects."

Melinda Eden, an Oregon member of the Council and its chair, said that no outside audit has been done, but the staff has solicited and received information about the costs of other data collection programs.

The Fish Passage Center Oversight Committee is expected to discuss this information at its next meeting, which has yet to scheduled.

Regarding Craig's rider, Eden said the Council "has taken no position and will not do so. We have differing views among Council members."

Shauna McReynolds, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Smart Salmon Recovery, a partnership of agriculture employers, utility customers, and businesses, is a member of the FPC's oversight board.

She said while she didn't know the genesis of the language in the appropriations report, she said the effort to be more efficient in data collection "makes sense to me."

McReynolds said "there are people who are concerned about how some of the resources (of the FPC) are used to advocate for specific positions."

But she said the question of efficiencies goes far beyond the FPC. She said her organization seeks efficiencies in "every part of the Council's program."

Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said the FPC is "the North Star of data collection - reliable and apolitical.

"What cynic would take away the one entity that has delivered, consistently, the most reliable, dependable data available?" he asked. "Sen. Craig has asked us to keep the salmon solutions in the region. The Fish Passage Center is a fundamental part of that. Why outsource science?"

Rod Sando, executive director of the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority, said his organization's members would be discussing the FPC funding issue and rider at a Tuesday meeting. CBFWA's membership consists of the four state and two federal fish and wildlife management entities and 13 Indian tribes of the Columbia River Basin.

The FPC's work is "critical to the success of the Council's program," Sando said. "And it is cost effective."

The issue of fish data collection and its cost has, to say the least, been kicked around for many years.

Five years ago, in 2000, the NPCC asked its Independent Scientific Review Panel to review database projects.

Along with the FPC, other key data collection programs are the University of Washington's Columbia River Data Access in Real Time (DART) and Streamnet

The full ISRP report can be found at

One of its key conclusions was that the "amount of money that could be saved by curbing the small amount of redundancy that exists between data management projects (primarily between Fish Passage Center and DART) pales in comparison to the problem of meeting significant basinwide data gaps. We recommend continued support of the database programs. The Council focus should move on to identifying and filling gaps in data... ."

Senate Panel Orders BPA to Cease Fish Passage Center Funding
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 24, 2005

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