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Testimony of John Etchart

Representing Marc Racicot, Governor of Montana
9/13/00 - Delivered before the Committee on Environment and Public
Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Water Works

Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is John Etchart, and I am here today on behalf of the Governor of Montana, Marc Racicot. For the past seven years I have been one of Governor Racicot's appointees to the Northwest Power Planning Council.

As one of the four Pacific Northwest states, Montana has participated in the Federal government's and the region's efforts to recover endangered salmon and resident fish in the Columbia River Basin. Montana is unique among the four states, however, because it does not now, and never did have, anadromous fish within its borders.

What Montana does have, Mr. Chairman, is water. Our two large storage reservoirs, Hungry Horse and Libby, have provided large blocks of water during critical times of the year to assist migrating salmon and steelhead in the lower portions of the Columbia River. Over 40% of the domestic storage utilized by the Federal Columbia River Power System is in Montana. So while we don't enjoy any of the economic, cultural and aesthetic benefits attributable to the salmon, we contribute in a very substantial way toward their recovery. And I'll also add that this beneficence has not had the uniform support of the citizens of Montana.

Governor Racicot strongly believes that efforts to recover salmon and steelhead are a priority for the Pacific Northwest, including Montana, but also believes that the Governors of the four states, in conjunction with the Northwest Power Planning Council, should have more legal responsibility to develop and implement recovery plans for the listed species.

The capability and the commitment of the Governors was most recently illustrated by their recommendations for the protection and restoration of fish in the Columbia River Basin released in July. That document, which I would like to submit for the hearing record, is a comprehensive, no-nonsense package of recommendations that covers all the major areas of emphasis, including habitat reform, hatcheries, harvest, the hydroelectric system and the recognition that the impact on the region's people and our economic way of life comprises an important fifth "H."

Mr. Chairman, if you haven't done so already, I urge you to look at the Governors' recommendations when you have the opportunity. I think you will agree that the Governors were not afraid to take some bold stands on some of the thorniest issues we face. The National Marine Fisheries Service's draft biological opinion and "All-H" paper were not prepared with the benefit of the Governors' recommendations. This is a serious limitation because the Federal agencies have not included the region's input from our policy and political leaders. The Governors' input needs to be factored into the Federal agency documents before they are finalized. To that end, the Governors recently forwarded their work directly to Secretary Mineta.

Among the many recommendations included in the Governors' package, the following 10 common sense proposals are representative of the entire document.

1. The President should designate one official in the region to oversee the Federal recovery efforts, and who could serve as a single point of contact. There has been a clear lack of effort on the Federal agencies' part to collaborate with the states, tribes, local governments and landowners in recovery activities. This could be substantially corrected if the President were to do this.

2. The Federal agencies should develop a long-term management plan to address predation by fish-eating birds and marine mammals. So far, the Federal agencies have been unable to agree upon an approach to this problem.

3. The National Marine Fisheries Service should work with the region to conduct an intensive study on the impact of the ocean on fish recovery, including the impact of predation, lack of food sources, temperature problems and harvest regimes.

4. The use of spill should be improved -- in duration, timing and quantity -- at all Federal hydroelectric projects. This does not, in my view, call for more spill but rather that we gather the scientific information needed to better determine how best to balance the biological benefits of spilling water with the economic and system reliability impacts to the region's electric power system.

5. Flow augmentation should continue as a key mainstem strategy. However, the Federal agencies should document the benefits of flow augmentation and the precise attributes of flow that make it beneficial.

6. To reduce harvest impacts on listed fish, more selective fishing techniques and a license buyback program that can reduce the current excess fishing capacity should be instituted.

7. Harvest rates must ensure sufficient escapement to rebuild declining stocks. With inriver rates ranging up to 31 percent for one of the listed stocks, the Governors are not convinced that current practices are compatible with rapid recovery. Terminal fisheries should be established in appropriate areas.

8. Harvest goals must be linked to fish production goals. Hatchery operations must be modified so that fish are not being produced for fisheries where they cannot be harvested because of impacts on weak stocks.

9. Consistent with the Council's Artificial Production Review, the region's fish managers and tribes should jointly develop a comprehensive supplementation plan that includes aggressive monitoring and evaluation.

10. To facilitate a robust harvest program from hatchery fish in a way that does not impact wild fish, the Governors endorse a program that results in the marking of hatchery fish that pose threats to ESA-listed fish, to the fullest extent consistent with the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

Mr. Chairman, this is not to say that these recommendations are inconsistent with the draft biological opinion. The more important question is whether these recommendations will be pursued by the Federal agencies that wield authority under the Endangered Species Act. To my knowledge, the Governors' recommendations have not been acknowledged, let alone adopted, by the White House or the Federal agencies. This is unfortunate, especially when you consider that the electricity ratepayers of the Bonneville Power Administration finance the majority of salmon recovery measures instituted by the National Marine Fisheries Service. So while the region is required to pay for the implementation of the recovery measures, the region, historically, has had limited influence in determining the nature of those measures.

This leads me into one of Governor Racicot's primary concerns about the draft biological opinion. While the draft does appear to make a stronger effort to encourage collaboration with the Power Planning Council, the states, tribes, and others in the development of annual implementation plans, there is a lack of detail regarding the cost of the measures and whose responsibility it is to pay for them. Considering that a significant portion of the draft's "reasonable and prudent alternatives" deals with off-site mitigation measures, Governor Racicot presumes that the ratepayers once again will be asked to pay the freight.

What makes this even more troubling is the draft biological opinion's designation of "priority subbasins." Several of these high priority subbasins never have been emphasized by the Power Planning Council. For example, the Methow, Entiat, Cowlitz and Lewis subbasins in Washington State would evidently take priority for funding over other areas where the Council has historically concentrated significant resources and effort over the years.

When Congress passed the Northwest Power Act in 1980 and created the Northwest Power Planning Council, one of the primary responsibilities given the Council was to develop a fish and wildlife program to protect, mitigate and enhance all fish and wildlife in the Columbia River Basin affected by the hydroelectric system. As Montana understands the draft biological opinion, Congress' broad direction to protect all fish and wildlife in the Basin may take a back seat to focusing on ESA-listed stocks only. Such a development could have tragic consequences for many other at-risk species in the Basin.

Unfortunately, Congress does not oversee the implementation of Federal policy in the Columbia River Basin through its constitutionally derived "power of the purse." As a consequence, the funding of endangered species activities in the Columbia is a prime example of "backdoor" spending by a Federal agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service. Because Bonneville is a self-financing agency that doesn't require annual appropriations for its operations, the National Marine Fisheries Service, through its ESA authority, is able to require Bonneville to pay for any number of measures in its biological opinions, regardless of whether they represent sound science and good public policy. Unfortunately, there is currently little opportunity for Congress to either approve or disapprove Bonneville's expenditures for ESA measures prior to their being made. Governor Racicot believes such a procedure on the part of the National Marine Fisheries Service circumvents the prerogative of Congress to approve agency budgets, as well as the public's right to accountability in the expenditure of public resources.

It is Governor Racicot's recommendation that the Fisheries Service be required to submit a specific, annual ESA budget for the Columbia River Basin, including activities proposed to be funded by the Bonneville ratepayers, to Congress for approval, just like other Federal agency activities. Ideally, ESA-specific measures, such as "reasonable and prudent alternatives" identified in the biological opinion, because of their national significance, should be financed through appropriations, not Bonneville ratepayer funds. This would ensure that Bonneville's funds would continue to be directed at the historic mission of protecting, mitigating and enhancing all fish and wildlife in the Basin affected by the hydrosystem. To the extent Bonneville funds are required to pay for measures in the biological opinions, Congress should demand the opportunity to review and approve them prior to the start of the fiscal year.

Montana is also concerned that the National Marine Fisheries Service's draft biological opinion does not include cost estimates for its proposed river and flow operations, and we are concerned about the potential impacts of these operations on reservoirs and resident fish and wildlife in our state. While water released in November primarily for the benefit of chum salmon in the lower Columbia River Basin would boost hydropower generation in that month, the region would lose 1,000 megawatts of generation in December and 1,500 megawatts in January as a result. This is precisely the time of year when the region faces the greatest risk of being unable to generate enough electricity to meet demand, according to an analysis done by our staff at the Power Planning Council. The cost of buying replacement power, if it is available, could be astronomical -- as we learned from California's experience this past summer.

The reliability of the region's power system has clearly been degraded and for the first time since the 1970s there are increasingly frequent energy emergencies. These emergencies are of two types. First, as electric loads approach the limit of the region's generation capability, wholesale electricity prices become increasingly volatile. This summer's market volatility took wholesale electricity prices in the region to unprecedented levels of more than $1,000 per megawatt-hour. This compares with the price of Bonneville's power for public agencies in the region of approximately $23 per megawatt-hour. The second stage of a power emergency that could result from the current situation is curtailment of some loads followed by brownouts or blackouts! It is my view that the combination of events that define the region's power system reliability has reached a critical state where total system collapse could happen if we get an unusually cold and dry winter.

The impending regional power crisis is further exacerbated by the conflicting and overlapping authorities of the many Federal, state and tribal entities that make decisions concerning fish and wildlife requirements, power and flood control operations and marketing. The regional power reliability problems have at their root a public policy failure that fails to balance the biological and economic effects of proposed actions. An example of this occurred recently when Bonneville declared an energy emergency at the end of last month. Bonneville proposed to increase federal generation and reduce fish requirements to avoid purchasing power from the competitive market at very high prices. The Federal agencies would not agree with Bonneville's proposal because it caused impacts on fish and recreation. So Bonneville was then forced to purchase power at prices in excess of $200 per megawatt-hour.

Bonneville recently reported to the Council that it spent approximately $45 million for purchased power in one week! And this during a week when relatively few fish were in the river. This is an extremely large sum, and my point is that there is no federal, regional or state decision making mechanism to insure that an appropriate balance is struck between the various interests that have competing demands for the water stored in the region's reservoirs. The experience at the end of last month highlights the region's inability to decide on the best use of ratepayer funds and to establish a reasonable balance between the various interests that are all struggling to control the system to produce more of what they value most.

One last and specific example of the difficulty the region has finding balance is the impact that Montana must absorb as water is drafted in an attempt to improve the survival of juvenile salmon in the Lower Columbia River. The Federal storage reservoirs in Montana house a productive ecosystem and critical habitat that supports our ESA-protected bull trout and other resident fish and wildlife. To improve on our management of these reservoirs and the benefits they provide, the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks has conducted years of research on the impacts of reservoir operations on these species. From this research we defined Integrated Rule Curves (IRCs), designed to provide water for power generation and salmon flows while preserving and protecting Montana's fish and wildlife species. The IRCs recognized the need for water downstream of Montana for other fish and other uses. However, we had to go to Federal court to secure even the weakest recognition by the Federal agencies of the needs of species in Montana, and to our consternation we find that the current draft biological opinion from NMFS again ignores biological needs of animals in Montana by recommending that even more water be taken from Hungry Horse dam.

On behalf of Governor Racicot, I want to thank you for offering me this opportunity to highlight some of the complex and controversial public policy questions that face our region. In our view, the present operation of the Federal hydropower system makes it nearly impossible to organize and direct a regional recovery effort and impossible to provide a rational balancing of the many competing multiple purpose interests in the federal dams.

John Etchart, Representing Marc Racicot, Governor of Montana
Testimony of John Etchart
Committee on Environment and Public, Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Water Works - September 13, 2000

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