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Landmark Salmon Plan on Dry Ground

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, November 19, 2000

In the summer of 1998, two of Washington's major hydropower producers caught the attention of the nation with a landmark agreement to save Columbia River salmon.

The National Marine Fisheries Service praised the historic plan by the Douglas and Chelan public utility districts. Environmentalists lauded the PUDs as regional leaders in salmon recovery.

And the utility districts sent a press release to 2,000 newsrooms around the country extolling what was to be the nation's first habitat conservation plan, or HCP, designed specifically to protect salmon and steelhead.

"This is government at its best," lauded Terry Garcia, assistant secretary of the Commerce Department at the time.

All the parties gathered at a Wenatchee park for a ceremonial signing to celebrate the success of an expected agreement.

And then nothing happened.

Two-and-a-half years later, the supposedly precedent-setting conservation plan still has not been officially signed and won't be for several months.

Nor has it spawned other habitat plans that were supposed to follow the trail of cooperation.

And, there's still substantive disagreement about whether or not the document is valid. The Yakama Nation, for instance, accuses the federal government and the utility districts of "whistling past the graveyard" and trying to pretend they have a deal when it's fallen apart.

"It has been a whole string of broken promises," said Tim Weaver, attorney for the Yakamas.

Ironically, Grant County PUD reports two years of progress on fish restoration plans. Roundly criticized for dropping out of the Douglas and Chelan conservation plan, Grant has made double time ever since and expects to have its final fish proposal finished in December.

HCP aims to benefit fish, power

Habitat conservation plans, commonly known as HCPs, are one way to meet federal species protection laws. In this case, they set limits on how many salmon can be killed in exchange for "mitigation," or recovery efforts.

And, by bringing together traditionally at-odds groups in the planning process, an HCP can help industries prevent environmental lawsuits -- the closest thing to certainty dam operators have.

Chelan and Douglas PUDs negotiated for four years with environmentalists, federal and state agencies and tribes on how to make their dams "invisible" to salmon.

The two PUDs were to be given latitude in how they met goals at three large hydropower dams: Rocky Reach, Rock Island and Wells. Fish bypass systems, hatchery modifications and habitat restoration were all to be part of the plans at a cost of $120 million over 50 years.

In exchange, the utility districts were to get "takings permits" from the federal government so they could continue to operate their dams despite "unavoidable" fish kills. By having support from traditional challengers, PUDs were supposed to sail through the fish section of the arduous federal dam relicensing program and gain protection from regulation for decades.

"Without those permits, the utility districts could be forced to drastically alter how they operate their power plants because of the August 1997 endangered species listing of steelhead runs in the region," said a 1998 Chelan-Douglas press release.

At the time, the PUDs figured it would take up to two years to complete the federal environmental analysis.

"We have had virtually no discussions on the issues since," said Weaver, the Yakama lawyer.

Process slows, agreement falters

At Douglas County PUD, environment chief Bob Clubb said the process stalled when NMFS decided to move the habitat plans from Olympia to Portland for processing.

But Bryan Nordlund, NMFS administrator in Portland, said momentum was lost after the public ceremony in 1998 when parties reviewed "gaps" in the agreement. Specifically, he said, there's differences in how to measure salmon survival, one of the key parts of the habitat plan.

"The details of how to accomplish that is what gets tough," Nordlund said. "Those issues are being worked out right now."

But from Weaver's perspective, the agreement has fallen apart. He said his clients gave "conditional closure" to 90 percent of the items in the habitat plan -- enough for the parties to consider it a done deal.

"The 10 percent that were left were the ones that the tribes and environmentalists had to have," said Weaver. "Suddenly, at the last minute ... the National Marine Fisheries Service said, 'We can't guarantee those.'

"We said without those guarantees, there is no deal."

Specifically, the tribes are upset about the lack of certainty in the hatchery program. The dispute highlights the chasm between federal and tribal fish strategies. In general, NMFS sees hatcheries as a liability for wild fish while tribes view them as a valuable way to boost harvest.

NMFS wants to review Mid-Columbia hatcheries and reduce them if they are deemed harmful to wild runs or not necessary because of dam improvements. The Yakamas say hatchery guarantees were the reason they gave ground on several other issues.

And the utility districts say they're all for hatcheries -- if NMFS approves them.

"We are kind of caught in the middle," said Dick Nason, director of corporate services at Chelan PUD. "And we are hoping that our hatchery program will be of high enough quality from a genetic perspective that it will not have an adverse impact on any listed (salmon) stocks."

Despite the differences, NMFS and the utility districts are pushing forward. NMFS plans to release a draft environmental analysis on the PUD fish plan in the next several weeks.

"It's a milestone for us," Nason said, noting the districts have not waited for final agreement to start dam upgrades. "It's actually moving. It's not stagnant."

But it's moving way too fast, said Weaver. "They are basically pretending they have an agreement when they don't ... and they are going to go ahead and shove it down our throats."

Clubb knows tribes are upset about hatchery provisions. "It can be a little frustrating to see all the effort being spent on the negotiations and nothing coming to fruit as you envisioned," he said.

And he recognizes the validity of the habitat plan is an open question if the tribes refuse to sign. "There may be some compromise position," he said. "I don't know."

Grant rebuilds image, salmon

While Douglas and Chelan PUDs shared the regional spotlight in 1998, Grant PUD got a public black eye.

Much to the dismay of environmental groups and agencies, Grant pulled out of the negotiating process, saying it could not keep pace despite its commitment to fish protection. "They have been dragging their feet for so long," said one American Rivers official at the time.

Like the other utility districts, Grant is seeking protection from the Endangered Species Act enforcement as it goes through a massive federal relicensing review at Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams.

"We have been working pretty hard to reestablish those relationships," said Doug Ancona, Grant PUD natural resources chief. "We have turned it around and we are going the other direction."

Grant PUD isn't using an official habitat conservation plan, preferring instead to negotiate fish measures with other interest groups and put them in place as they reach agreement. But the utility district must clear the same hurdles as its neighbors -- upstream and downstream migration, hatchery supplementation and habitat.

"There is so much chat up and down the river ... about protection programs and enhancement programs and supplementation programs. Grant's focus is to put ours into action," Ancona said.

For instance, by early this year, Grant PUD had installed devices at Wanapum Dam to reduce the amount of atmospheric gases entrained in the river when water is spilled over the dam. That allowed the district to send more water down river during fish migration, another "act of good faith" Ancona says shows the Grant PUD's commitment to salmon and steelhead.

Ancona is optimistic his district will reach agreement on the rest of its long-term fish plan by the end of the year.

Of course, money remains a concern, just as it was in 1998. Ancona said he's still developing the plan, so he doesn't know how much it will cost. In 1998, the annual total was projected at $48 million a year -- or nearly $2.5 billion over 50 years.

"Our approach is to acknowledge your responsibility and move toward solving the problem," Ancona said. "And that is the way we will continue to do business."

The right path?

With all the struggles, Clubb hopes Douglas PUD took the right path when it opted for a habitat plan. Initially, he thought it would give his district more control over its future, bolster salmon runs and provide certainty for future operations.

Now, however, he has some questions -- specifically how NMFS will revise its environmental analysis after public review.

"A fear I have is that with so much time going by and different people now reviewing the agreement from those that negotiated it, that perhaps items ... are going to be renegotiated," Clubb said. "If the process ... allows NMFS to gain all those things they gave away, it's not fair and equitable."

Nason is confident the habitat plan was the right choice. "We have asked ourselves that more than once: Did we do the right thing?" he said. "I don't think there is another good alternative."

Mike Lee
Landmark Salmon Plan on Dry Ground
Tri-City Herald, November 19, 2000

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