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Subbasin Policy Group says No to Extending May 28 Deadline

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - January 16, 2004

Fearing that it would loose a flood of similar proposals, the Columbia River basin's Regional Coordinating Group this week chose not to endorse a request from the state of Oregon that the John Day planning group be allowed to stretch the deadline for submittal of its developing subbasin plan to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

Oregon and John Day participants in the NPCC process told the RCG, a multi-agency subbasin planning policy group, that a timely delivery would sacrifice the quality of the plan. The plan and others being developed are expected to drive fish and wildlife spending and Endangered Species Act decisions in the subbasin.

The state, federal and tribal RCG participants not representing Oregon for the most part acknowledged that the general anxiety level is growing across the basin as a May 28 deadline for submittal of subbasin plans approaches. But most also said Tuesday that planners across the region need to put together the best available science and submit the best plans possible by the target date.

The subbasin fish and wildlife project activity inventories, assessment of stock and habitat conditions and proposed management plans are being prepared in 58 of the Columbia Basin's 62 subbasins. They will ultimately be considered as amendments to the NPCC's fish and wildlife program.

At present, that program is allotted $139 million for expense and $36 million for capital projects annually by the Bonneville Power Administration. The federal power marketing agency funds the program as mitigation for impacts to fish and wildlife from construction and operation of the federation hydrosystem. BPA officials also say that program must bear a share of the costs of reviving ESA-listed salmon and steelhead stocks whose survival is jeopardized by hydrosystem operations.

The NPCC has set a schedule that calls for submittal of subbasin plans by no later than May 28. All of the contracts that fund activities of the local subbasin planning groups -- as well as state level groups and the RCG -- also end on that date.

The NPCC, with BPA's approval, set a two-year, $15.2 million budget for the process. As of this week, the Council's subbasin planning coordinator, Lynn Palensky, said that more than $13.9 million of that total had been "released" -- earmarked for specific work. Some $1.3 million remains unallocated. Slightly less than $5 million had actually been paid out on invoices for subbasin plan development work according to the most recent accounting.

The period from June 1 through Aug. 1 is earmarked for a review of the subbasin plans by the Council's Independent Scientific Review Panel. The Council will take public comments on the plans from June 1 through Sept. 30. After that date, the NPCC and staff will consider the public comment and prepare a draft amendment, or package of draft amendments in the October-November timeframe. A public comment period will follow. A final amendments package would then be prepared. The Council has said it would like adopt subbasin plans into the program in December or January that meet Northwest Power Act standards for the "best available science."

The John Day planners asked the RCG this week for a one-month extension of the submittal deadline. Karl Weist of the NPCC's Oregon office said a show of support at the RCG level was needed before John Day planners could approach the Council regarding the extension request.

Most who spoke on the topic Tuesday said that the planning groups in their states or regions faced the same problems described by John Day officials, but said they supported the current deadline without exceptions.

Oregon and John Day spokesmen argued that the plan development got a late start and had run into technical/data dilemmas that make it impossible to produce a plan of the desired quality by May 28.

"To meet the terms of the contract is simple," said Jim Owens of Cogan, Owens and Cogan, which was contracted as Level II subbasin planning coordinator for Oregon. "It's the quality that's at risk here."

The project manager for the John Day subbasin plan, Rick Barnes, said the plugging of data into the Ecosystem Diagnostic and Treatment tool has become a bottleneck of sorts in the development of the plan's assessment. The subbasin contains some 1,266 stream reaches that are valuable habitat for salmon and steelhead. The EDT model calls for the evaluation of more than 40 habitat parameters.

A three-member team with unique experience in the subbasin are committing three days a week to the EDT at minimum, in some case at the expense of their normal ODFW job tasks, Barnes said. Through Jan. 8 the team had completing the rating of 29.3 percent of the reaches on 464 different streams occupied by steelhead.

"In order to speed up the process we were asked to further consolidate reaches, but we think that will compromise integrity of the EDT model and quality of the end product, so have resisted further consolidation," Tim Unterwegner, district biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in a recent letter to Weist. "If we change the process now, it will be inconsistent with what has been completed to date, and further compromise the overall assessment and plan."

Underwegner's letter, and comments from Owens and Barnes, stressed that the John Day River, as a subbasin managed exclusively for wild anadromous fish, is a priority both to the state and for overall recovery efforts.

"Developing shortcuts to speed up the assessment process to meet a non-biological deadline will compromise product quality, perhaps skewing the habitat funding prioritization process," Unterwegmer wrote. The plans are expected to guide Council recommendations as they attempt to focus a limited amount of funding on a subbasin's highest fish and wildlife needs. He called the EDT a powerful tool.

"Doing a thorough and credible job now will facilitate use of this assessment in other projects and save hundreds of hours in the long run," he wrote.

"The people that are on the ground really want a quality product," Barnes told the RCG.

The subbasin planning coordinators from Washington and Idaho emphasized that the process must have a goal line, and that the documents produced are intended to be updated and refreshed as more information, and potentially improved science, becomes available. Washington's Tony Grover said that it is literally impossible to produce the perfect plan to satisfy scientific reviewers and the Council.

"I don't thing we can stretch this process to try to get a better model run. We've come to the party with the best clothes we have," Grover said.

"We just need to move on," Idaho's Tom Dayley said of a process that was intended from the beginning to be iterative. Grover said that he is approached almost daily regarding the flexibility of the deadline.

"If this is approved (the John Day request), it will open the floodgates," said Chris Drivdahl of Washington Gov. Gary Locke's Salmon Recovery Office.

Weist followed up Tuesday's meeting with a message to subbasin planners across the state to point toward the May 28 deadline.

"With this affirmation by the RCG, I would urge all of you to consider the May 28 date as hard and firm for submission of subbasin plans to the Council. The contractual arrangements still call for submission on May 28," Weist wrote. "Therefore, those of you developing subbasin plans might have to take actions you deem necessary to get a plan submitted to the Council by the requested date. Oregon has said that it will not bring this issue before the RCG any more."

Status reports from Idaho, Oregon and Washington showed a mixed bag. Subbasin plan development in Idao subbasins ranged from 100 percent complete (the Clearwater) to zero percent (the Snake headwaters), but most were at or above 50 percent complete. Oregon's plans were in a mid-range, from 20 to 70 percent complete. Washington reported one subbasin, Crab Creek, yet to launch into the project but most were well along in the process.

Related Sites:

CBB Staff
Subbasin Policy Group says No to Extending May 28 Deadline
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 16, 2004

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