the film

Estuary MOA may Save Agency Jobs and Fish

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, May 6, 2009

A proposed agreement between action agencies and the state of Washington to improve Columbia estuary habitat will likely benefit more than just juvenile fish. It may also help a few folks at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife avoid losing their jobs to the state's budget crisis.

The extra $4.5 million a year will undoubtedly help keep some staff on the payroll, and may go a long way to satisfy BiOp judge James Redden's concern that the feds' new salmon plan does not do enough to improve conditions in the Columbia River estuary.

Redden was skeptical of the feds' rosy BiOp analysis that estimated estuary improvements would boost juvenile fish survival 6 to 9 percent--helping NOAA Fisheries reach an ultimate no-jeopardy decision for dam operations.

The proposed MOA calls for doubling annual spending for habitat restoration in the estuary--nearly $41 million more over the next nine years.

"This initiative will significantly increase the pace of habitat restoration in the lower Columbia Basin, which is key to improving the survival of juvenile salmon," said Phil Anderson, WDFW's interim director.

But job security for other WDFW staffers won't be improving over the next two years.

A February staff email said about 100 of the 1,550 agency personnel would likely be laid off if Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire's budget deficit numbers were correct.

Staff cuts were being considered as a last resort, after department managers pursued efforts to trim other spending, increase recreational license sales and restructure agency operations, Anderson said in February. With personnel expenses consuming about 80 percent of the department's budget, other measures were inadequate to address the shortfall, he said.

The lay-off plans were based on an anticipated funding cut of more than $30 million from WDFW's $348-million, two-year operating budget. Gregoire called for reducing WDFW's budget by $30 million in her proposed 2009-11 state budget, and directed the department to reduce spending by more than $5 million in the current fiscal year.

Earlier this spring, it looked like even more staffers would likely be cut, because the deficit has ballooned since then to about $9 billion over the next two years. But when the state legislature adjourned in April after wrestling with the new budget, it had only cut WDFW's spending by about $25 million.

Meanwhile, BPA and the Corps of Engineers will split the added cost of the new MOA--with BPA increasing its commitment by $1.8 million annually, partly by reallocating research, monitoring and evaluation work that will now be funded by the Corps.

The Corps of Engineers is committed to seeking $2.7 million in annual appropriation to support the federal cost-share for estuary projects to be implemented by Washington to match with the increased habitat funding to be provided by BPA.

The state, in turn, is committed to completing habitat actions aimed at meeting biological objectives already spelled out by the action agencies.

Total spending over the next nine years is expected to be around $90 million for the projects themselves and another $60 million for research, monitoring and evaluation.

That may still not be enough to satisfy the judge. The BiOp called for funding $55 million in estuary habitat improvements over its 10-year life, while a recovery 'module' for the Columbia estuary developed by the feds estimated that it would take $500 million over the next 25 years to get it into shape.

At an April 2 meeting where federal attorneys announced the proposed MOA, Redden seemed less than impressed. He asked about prospects for more tributary habitat funding, more spill, and more water from Canada. And he raised the question of whether agencies could tap into cash from the recent federal stimulus package to help ESA-listed fish in the Columbia Basin

Bill Rudolph
Estuary MOA may Save Agency Jobs and Fish
NW Fishletter, May 6, 2009

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