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CBB Interview:
John Etchart, 3-Time NWPPC Chairman

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - December 15, 2000

One of Montana's two representatives to the Northwest Power Planning Council, John Etchart, will be exiting that stage after eight years helping guide the Columbia Basin's fish and wildlife recovery program and working to safeguard the region's power supply system.

Etchart, appointed in 1993 by Gov. Marc Racicot, opted to leave the Council at year's end. The three-time Council chairman agreed this week to reflect on the many issues the Council has faced during his tenure.

In his interview below with the Columbia Basin Bulletin (CBB), Etchart (JE) offered his opinion on the changing face of fish and wildlife recovery in the 1990s and power system dilemmas:

-- CBB: What were the major issues facing the Council when you joined in 1993?

JE: "The onset of the ESA listings was the new phenomenon when I first came to the Council. I don't think, early on, people really understood the implications of having a very powerful federal influence posing as a pre-emptive element in a lot of regional decisions. Here we had a couple of listings and more on the way, but the institutional implications of what that meant for the Council and the Northwest I don't think were really clear.

"On the power side, you had the Bonneville Power Administration examining its role. They were going through a self-examination and looking for efficiencies and looking for a strategic fit. I do recall they were having early concerns about rates. Bonneville had traditionally sold at a great advantage to the market place. But with the accumulation of costs -- the nuclear debt service and now the conservation program and fish and wildlife program -- people were starting to see that if it kept going that way, you were going to have ratepayers not enjoying the same advantage to market they had. And in an absolute sense you had lots on unhappiness and concern about the accumulation of costs in a cost-based product. But for those costs the rates would be lower."

-- CBB: How has the relationship between he Council and federal agencies changed during the past eight years?

JE: "In a general sense I think the relationship has improved. Now that doesn't mean there aren't more miles to walk. But I think the federal agencies have learned that they really need to collaborate and that federal decisions made my fiat just aren't effective and can't by nature be effective."

-- CBB: You have complained in Council sessions about the relative balance between ratepayer and U.S. taxpayer responsibility for the costs of fish and wildlife recovery and, in particular, ESA recovery programs.

JE: "That would be a particular rasp point still. We have our differences of opinion but I think there's more alignment now in how we see things and how the feds see things and maybe even in how the tribes see things. And I'd offer as evidence that the feds deferred to the Council's subbasin planning approach. There's some evidence that maybe they're coming to see things more similarly to how the region sees them.

"The idea that the BPA ratepayer is being made to bear more than the appropriate share of ESA spending is of great concern to me and I think the ratepayer in Northwest is aware of it. They ought to be concerned too because they are displacing the appropriation expenditures."

-- CBB: What do you consider the Council's greatest accomplishment over the past eight years?

JE: "I would insist there is much more accountability. I think largely by dint of the Council's insistence, the science is better. The science is stronger. I think the region and the various players in this game have sort of turned the corner on the connection between the science and accountability. The Council is the only agency with the responsibility for fish recovery or enhancement and power and public participation. If you look back over these past eight years you'll see that there's an awful lot more attention paid to efficiency, accountability and earning a return on these investments. There is a lot more reliance on objective, third-party science."

-- CBB: In your opinion what are the Council's major strengths and weaknesses as a regional governance body?

JE: "The Council has a very important, distinct and separable mission. We have responsibility not only for fish and wildlife protection, mitigation and enhancement. We also have a responsibility to protect that regional power benefit to be sure we have a plentiful and reasonably priced, and reliable power. To strike that balance is a great strength of the Council because it is a mission that the other players in this game don't have. They work in pursuit of one interest, which is the fish and wildlife interest. Not that that isn't of absolute importance in itself but, when you think about it, an agency with the responsibility for doing both, that's a very important chore.

"We also have a very strong staff that is recognized among the various players as the top of the heap when you are talking about fish or power.

"We have the auspices of the four governors -- the four most powerful executives that serve by virtue of popular election whose power, on a combined basis, resides at the Council table. If you have four interested and engaged governors, as we've had by and large, you have the makings of an effective regional organization.

"We don't have enough authority. Our authority is pretty specific and pretty limited. That's a weakness.

"It's a crowed field, a very confused setting. These are huge stakes, this is the biggest natural resource recovery program in the world and there are lots of players in it and the fact that the Council doesn't have clear authority and operates in this crowded environment is obviously a weakness."

-- CBB: Is the Council spending the Columbia Basin fish and wildlife program funding wisely?

"I would argue that the program funding is being spent wisely. If you go back to look at the total amount of expenditures from when the program first came into place, I'm not sure you could make that argument to the same extent you can today. If you look at how we go about making our expenditures today I would say they are prudent and are becoming increasingly so. That's because of the increasing reliance on science, which means strong measurement and evaluation and looking at benefits of these projects and focusing on things that work and throwing aside things that don't work.

"We have to drive this reliance on science to the absolute. And we have to make sure that our primary focus in going forward is on the successful change to a subbasin planning regimen. If we don't implement that successfully and we don't find a way to have the regional or the provincial goals translate to meaningful planning at the local or subbasin level, then the whole damn drill comes apart."

-- CBB: Was the work of the Multi-Species Framework process a success?

"Yes -- you had a huge and by and large effective participation by stakeholders throughout the region. And not just the usual parties --not just the fish and wildlife agencies and the tribes. You had the whole gamut -- river users, utilities, people that don't generally play an effective role in putting together a fish and wildlife plan. And while we didn't pick a particular option or alternative, we did use framework development process as a tool -- things that came from the framework -- in our fish and wildlife plan."

-- CBB: Do you think it is reasonable to expect that Bonneville continue to contribute to fish and wildlife recovery efforts at the level it has historically, or possibly at higher funding levels?

JE: "That's a question that the Council doesn't really decide. Bonneville has committed itself through the fish and wildlife funding principles and through the pronouncements of their leadership to fund fish and wildlife recovery to the extent that is necessary. I guess the answer, at the end of the day, is that it's likely that BPA is going to end up spending a little more money. But we should all work hard to make sure those expenditures are made based on real science and the highest probability of return. The accountability argument comes into play."

-- CBB: Is the Council playing its intended role under the Northwest Power Act?

JE: "With regard to fish and wildlife, yes. We write a program and a plan for the recovery, protection and mitigation of fish and wildlife. But the ESA has really clouded that picture. We write a plan. Is it as potent as the Northwest Power Act meant for it to be? Probably not because of the influence of the Endangered Species Act. I think that Gov. Racicot and Gov. Kitzhaber believe that the region should probably be more influential in the big ESA decisions.

"With power, so much has changed. The industry is restructuring; there are these wild gyrations in the market place. I think that the Council is still making a good contribution. And I think the highest value contribution in this field, even in a changed set of circumstances, is neutral expertise that I think people recognize. We're able to contribute good solid information even in this highly dynamic situation. The development of the price spikes study that the governors commissioned. The reliability study that the Council at the governors' behest."

-- CBB: Was Gov. Racicot and Gov. Kitzhaber's recent governance proposal realistic?

JE: "Gov. Racicot and Gov. Kitzhaber share the view that the Council and the region should be stronger in all of these huge decisions and they think the governance proposal is a step in that direction. I don't think either of them is committed to all things in that proposal. What they want to do is generate a conversation among the various players that might lead to a strengthening of the Council. Gov. Racicot thinks it's a conversation that has to be had. He wants more in the home rule vein, where people that live out here and know the resources best and are most affected by the decisions are more potent in how the decisions are made."

-- CBB: How can the Council play a meaningful role in hydrosystem decisions related to spill, flow augmentation, passage improvement decisions and other operations?

JE: "Again the Council, and the region, has to insist that science is the basis for all spending. I think the Council gave the other players good direction in the program amendments we just passed by asking the federal agencies that really dictate these flow augmentation and spill decisions to explain to us how these things are of benefit and what features of spill are of benefit and what features of flow are of benefit. You have a regional agency that doesn't have ESA authority acting to resolve ESA-Northwest Power Act conflicts by asking for the federal agencies to provide the region with the underlying rationale for these big, expensive programs. I think those requests will be very important."

-- CBB: Is it realistic to think the Council can overcome provincialism, given the varied interests of the individual states and tribes, and develop a generally accepted fish and wildlife plan?

JE: "The whole notion that the Council is highly provincial is overblown. We just adopted our fish and wildlife program by an 8-0 vote. I think the notion that the Council is all split up, upriver-downriver, power or fish, Democrats or Republicans, is really left over from days gone by . We have the power of persuasion. We use the auspices of the governors but I think we all understand that that persuasive ability is powerful and the auspices of the governors are only effective if they are exercised on a unanimous or nearly unanimous basis. If the Council's split, what the Council does will be shrugged off quite readily. The real potency of the Council is that there is good to be accomplished through the power of the four states acting together that no one of the states can accomplish alone."

-- CBB: What were your most frustrating and satisfying moments as a Council member?

JE: "Going back to the adoption of the 1994 plan. That was a badly split Council that on a 5-3 vote passed a plan that was a bridge too far for many of us. It was ineffective and lay dormant and unappreciated and really unheeded. It taught us all something. If we want the Council to be effective for the region we have to find positions that we can all support.

"There are a lot of satisfying moments. I guess on a general basis I've seen the stature of the Council grow over the years. The Congress looks to the Council more and more frequently, as do the governors' offices and the regulators, and really the players in the region, look to the Council for leadership and analysis.

"The Gorton amendment -- where the Council is being charged with the responsibility for overseeing the expenditure of all these monies, both in the direct program and the reimbursibles and so on, can be looked on as proof positive that the various players are coming more to the work of the Council."

-- CBB: What do you think are the biggest tasks facing the Council in 2001 and beyond?

JE: "It's real important that the Council, or the region through the Council, finds a way to have real effective input in these huge management decisions that the federal government has made too unilaterally.

"And on the power side, I think the question of whether or not the region can continue to enjoy the benefits and the fruits from the power system is the big question. What is the institutional role of Bonneville, how do we protect those benefits from a jealous outside that would like to appropriate those benefits. I'm talking about the various people in Congress that would like to privatize Bonneville and take the benefit and spread it over the whole country. Or California, which would like to demand more and more of our cost-based power."

-- CBB: What does your future hold? We've heard rumors that you might be a candidate for appointment as administrator of BPA.

JE: "It has been joy working for and with Gov. Racicot. We're great friends. He's a terrific leader and I hope he continues to be influential in the business of the Northwest. I hope there is a way I can continue to keep working with him. But there are so many variables and so many uncertainties I just don't know where it's all going to lead. With regard to the administrator's position, I heard the same speculation. I have great respect for the agency, great respect for the mission it serves. But it is so preliminary and so remote that I don't really have anything to say about it.

"It was the right time for me to excuse myself from the Council's work. I enjoyed getting acquainted with the people and the problems the Council works with. And I'm hopeful of staying in the Northwest."

Barry Espenson
CBB Interview: John Etchart, 3-Time NWPPC Chairman
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 15, 2000

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