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Officials Discuss BiOp Rewrite/Subbasin Planning Integration

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - November 7, 2003

Subbasin planning participants responded coolly this week to the news that they will be asked to redirect some portion of their energies to help NOAA Fisheries shape a new biological opinion regarding operations of the Federal Columbia River Power System.

NOAA's Rob Walton says his agency wants to draw on the databases being assembled and analyzed in the preparation of subbasin inventories of fish and wildlife recovery activities, assessments of habitat conditions and factors that limit fish and wildlife productivity, and management plans.

State officials convening as the Columbia River Basin's subbasin planning Regional Coordinating Group Thursday said they fear the federal request could serve to dull momentum directed at meeting a May 28 subbasin plan submittal deadline, as well as occupy precious funding and resources. They also were wary that the scientific analysis produced to support a reworked BiOp would also prevail in future decision making about how fish and wildlife project funds should be spent.

The $15 million subbasin process initiated by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council has entered a stretch run after more than two years of coordination. Nearly 60 subbasin plans are being built by state, tribal, local government and private technicians and policy makers for submittal as amendments to the Council's Regional Fish and Wildlife Program.

The plans are intended to set priorities for program spending. The program, now funded at $139 million per year plus $39 million in capital expense, is also the source of funding for so-called "off-site" actions and research and monitoring called for in the BiOp.

The subbasin plan submittal deadline is May 28. The individual plans are in various stages of development with the vast majority not expected until at or near the deadline.

A part of that subbasin plan information -- the inventories -- could be helpful in rebuilding a portion of a 2000 biological opinion found wanting this year by a federal judge.

U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden in a May opinion wrote that "NOAA's reliance on federal range-wide, off-site mitigation actions that have not undergone section 7 consultation and non-federal range-wide, off-site mitigation actions which are not reasonably certain to occur was improper and, as to eight of the salmon ESUs, the no-jeopardy opinion in the RPA is arbitrary and capricious." The judge remanded the BiOp to NOAA so that the flaws could be corrected.

The redrafted BiOp, due in court by June 2, would seek to identify "non-federal range-wide, off-site mitigation actions" -- such as fish and wildlife actions begin carried out by state, tribal and local entities -- that are "reasonably certain" to occur. Those actions' effects on the survival of the salmon and steelhead stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act would be plugged into the new BiOp's survival analyses in an overall determination of whether hydrosystem actions pose jeopardy.

The judge did not rule on the science underpinning the 2000 BiOp. But the federal agencies as a part the remand process are updating its jeopardy analysis as well.

"We set out not only to fix the flaws that were cited but to refresh the science," said Walton, a NOAA assistant regional administrator and head of its Salmon Recovery Division. A part of that will be a reassessment of stock status by adding data from more recent years' salmon and steelhead adult returns.

Another part of it will be a reassessment of the environmental baseline for the listed stocks -- activities in the basin and across the range of the species that has affected -- negatively or positively -- the fish or their habitat. That work was launched this summer by the science center.

The work is not intended to "trump the local efforts," Walton said of the subbasin plan assessments. It was necessary, however, because the agency could not be assured that the necessary subbasin plans (in the territory of listed stocks) would be submitted and scientifically reviewed in time to inform the BiOp drafters.

"The timing is off," Walton told the RCG. The federal agencies would weigh information from as many sources as they can in their effort to find the "best science available" to support the new BiOp, due out in draft form in March.

Washington Council member Larry Cassidy and others noted that the plans are being developed painstakingly from biological and political perspectives. State, tribal and local entities have spent weeks and months "getting an energy formed and you guys are going to come up and kick it in the teeth if you are not careful." He said there is the fear that the science center products will ultimately override the locally crafted science.

"Your track record is not very good," Cassidy said.

Walton pointed out that the Science Center scientists had "come out of their ivory tower." The have launched "pilot" projects in the Yakima and Grande Ronde subbasins to compare their methodolgy and data with that employed by the locally based planners. The federal scientists have been meeting with local planners to make that comparison. The NOAA scientists, as well as policymakers, have often been criticized for making decisions unilaterally.

The science center on Thursday agreed to take on a third pilot -- the Clearwater -- at the urging of Jim Caswell, head of Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's Office of Species Conservation. The Clearwater subbasin is the furthest advanced of the 58 planning efforts. It is due for submittal to the Council later this month following a pre-submittal, a review by the Independent Scientific Review Panel and a redrafting to correct deficiencies over the past year.

Walton, agreeing with Caswell, said that the local and federally produced assessments are "potentially huge problems if they are not compatible." He used as a broad example water quality -- one assessment could deem it a limiting factor for fish stocks and the other might not. That evaluation of limiting factors would provide focus for remedies and funds.

In cases where there are differences, "the scientists ought to work it out," Walton said.

A key, according to Peter Paquet of the Council staff, is that the same data must be used in making the scientific analysis. The subbasin planning process, he said, has accumulated the most comprehensive data set in the basin.

"That takes away a lot of the potential for having a train wreck down the road," Paquet said. He praised the science center for participating in the comparison, but faulted it for not seeking access subbasin planning information sooner.

The federal entities involved and subbasin planning officials agreed to convene a high level panel of scientists in an attempt to develop a strategy for reconciling any differences that emerge between assessments for a particular subbasin.

Walton said the draft opinion will be a melding of data.

"The science center will be one source of input," he said. So will be inventory and assessment information from the subbasin planning process. He told the RCG that he would soon send a letter to the subbasin planners with the information request. He had not decided whether he would just have the federal scientists "go mine the data" or request the information be delivered in more refined form.

"We will use every bit of information that the subbasins want to give us," Walton said. He assured those attending Thursday's meeting that the federal agencies wanted neither to burden the subbasin process, nor supplant the local efforts.

Oregon's planning coordinator, Jim Owens, said the request, in whatever form, would foist new tasks upon subbasin planning participants that already have too little time and money.

"These are unfunded mandates," Owens said.

Tom Dayley, Idaho's coordinator, said participants in the subbasin process had been told that NOAA intended to use the plans as the foundation of its individual recovery plans for each stock or evolutionarily significant unit. No the federal agency is developing its own assessments.

"It seems almost presumptuous that the science center could produce a better product" with less money, time and fewer people than the subbasin process Dayley said.

"We will use your products," Walton said. But that information must be plugged into a basinwide, and ESU-wide methodology, he said. Inconsistencies between the subbasin and broader assessments would necessarily be reviewed and reconciled.

Washington Councilor Tom Karier said that it is good that the efforts are being coordinated, but said the belated request for information "shows a failure to try integrate NOAA Fisheries into subbasin planning." He said that if NOAA had participated more fully it would, essentially, already know how to access the information it needs.

The 2000 BiOp judged that the survival eight of the 12 listed Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead stocks were jeopardized by planned federal hydrosystem operations. The document's reasonable and prudent alternative or RPA, and an accompanying Basinwide Salmon Recovery Strategy, described actions within the hydrosystem itself and off-site -- habitat improvements and changes to hatchery and harvest strategies -- the agency felt would avoid that jeopardy. The Bonneville Power Administration, Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamations and other federal agencies have teamed up to implement the plans.

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Barry Espenson
Officials Discuss BiOp Rewrite/Subbasin Planning Integration
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 7, 2003

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