Oregon Offers Little Support
by Bill Rudolph
On the same day The Oregonian published a story about Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski's attempts at making his state's Democratic Party more business friendly, other state politicians were taking testimony from two of the governor's natural resource advisors who made it clear their governor wasn't ready to support the Bonneville Power Administration's proposal to evaluate summer spill, a strategy the power agency says could save the region up to $77 million a year and harm only a couple dozen ESA-listed fall chinook in the process.
On March 1, Kulongoski advisors Tom Byler and Jim Myron told members of the state House Agriculture and Natural Resource Subcommittee on Water that the governor was fully "on board" with a rigorous evaluation of summer spill, but the BPA spill proposal wasn't designed to evaluate the effects on smolt-to-adult survival or the biological effectiveness of potential programs to make up for fish lost by reducing spill, especially non-listed stocks that migrate during the summer months.
Myron pointed to the Northwest governors' position in their agreement supporting the federal BiOp and its "aggressive non-breach" strategy for operating Columbia River dams to improve ESA-listed salmon and steelhead runs.
Failure to maintain that agreement, Myron said, could re-ignite the dam breaching issue, especially if the proposed spill change looks like a "reduction."
His remarks were nearly identical to comments submitted to federal agency heads in late February by Jeff Koenings, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"It's not a prudent time to make changes," Myron said, alluding to the BiOp remand now underway. He noted that Oregon agrees with federal agencies who say changes to the BiOp can be made within years, but it's a federal decision to make.
Shauna McReynolds, deputy director of the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee, said the state is "digging in its heels for the status quo."
"I'm disturbed by the state's lack of focus on this issue," McReynolds told NW Fishletter. "The governor is clearly showing an unwillingness to consider other alternatives."
Some subcommittee members were unhappy with the message from the governor's office as well. "People have had it with process," said Rep. Mike Schaufler (R). "We want decisions," adding that it was obvious the spill strategy provided little return at a great cost.
Myron said that a consensus of state agencies has criticized both the BPA proposal and the potential offsets, like the estimated benefits from increasing the pikeminnow bounty program, and reducing river fluctuations in the Hanford Reach. He wouldn't recommend the governor change his position until those agencies changed their minds.
State fish agencies from Idaho, Washington and Oregon were highly critical of the BPA analysis, a position shared by several lower Columbia tribes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The governor's representatives said if the feds decide to reduce spill, Oregon wants assurance that any money saved would be apportioned equitably between rate reduction and the region's fish and wildlife program. They also want some assurance from BPA that the action would not result in a rate increase in 2005, and would actually reduce power rates for Oregon taxpayers.
Ed Bowles, assistant fisheries administrator, told the subcommittee that flow and spill measures in the BiOp are the "only viable tools we have," and the "eroding" of any of those measures reduces the likelihood of success.
But his remarks didn't go over very well with some members. "I've heard the same story for a long time from this agency," said Bob Jenson, acting chair. Jenson pointed out that fisheries biologists were foreseeing an end to salmon runs a hundred years ago, long before there were any major dams.
Bowles was unfazed. He said he didn't agree with the results of the BPA analyses, calling it a misuse of NOAA Fisheries' SIMPAS passage model (which was updated and run with NOAA Fisheries help), which he said also estimated that another 3,000 fall chinook could be added to the ESA Snake River run if a spring-like spill regime was added to hydro operations in the summer months.
The passage model was also a bone of contention for tribal spokesman Paul Lumley, from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Lumley, without providing many details, said his agency used a modified form of the model to estimate that 50,000 non-listed fish would be lost from ending summer spill, more than twice what the BPA analysis suggested.
Lumley said the region was being blackmailed by BPA and browbeaten by the utilities to go along with a reduction in summer spill, since it has been suggested as a way to pay for the $15-million overage in the 2004 fish and wildlife budget.
Money issues took over from there as a parade of utility customers spoke about cost savings that could accrue from ending summer spill. PNGC spokesman Scott Corwin voiced support for the BPA proposal and reminded the subcommittee that the Northwest governors' letter didn't blindly support the BiOp, but also supported "cost-effective steps to benefit fish."
Weyerhaeuser spokesman Greg Miller said his company could reduce its power bills by nearly $3 million a year if summer spill ended.
Eastern Oregon farmer Brian Wolfe, representing the Umatilla Electric Cooperative, said irrigators in his region would see considerable savings from ending the summer spill program. He said his own $54,000 annual power bill would be reduced by $1,240 if summer spill were shut down.
The subcommittee also heard from fish advocates Nicole Cordan and Andrew Englander, representing the coalition Save Our Wild Salmon, who suggested that ending summer spill might be a violation of tribal treaties.
Sportsfishing industry spokesperson Liz Hamilton wouldn't accept the rosy federal analysis either, but expressed support for the agency and tribal numbers. She was concerned that recreational fishing in the lower Columbia might suffer, but also played the ESA card. "Requests like this remind us that the politics of extinction are alive and well in the Northwest," Hamilton said.
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